The future of work: Will Robots Really Take All Our Jobs?

Why is automation a threat? Robots could take over 20 million jobs by 2030. Here’s everything you need to know:

Why is automation a threat?

Technology is advancing faster than society can handle; it’s becoming faster and more intelligent, thus enabling machines to perform a growing number of tasks traditionally done by flesh-and-blood workers. 

Law firms now use artificial intelligence (AI) — sophisticated computer programs that can learn from experience — to more efficiently perform due diligence, conduct research, and bill hours. To make the ordering process more efficient, McDonald’s is replacing drive-thru workers with order-taking AI. To manage rising costs, Walmart has brought on board thousands of robots that will be scrubbing floors, scanning boxes, unloading trucks, and tracking shelf inventory. 

From 1990 to 2007, 670,000 U.S. jobs (mostly in manufacturing) were replaced by robots; every robot introduced into a local economy claimed six jobs. And the trend is not dying anytime soon. Instead, it will further accelerate as advances in mobile technology, AI, data transfer, and computing speeds allow robots to act with greater independence. As mentioned above, according to a study from Oxford Economics, within the next 10 years, robots could take over 20 million jobs; there could be 14 million robots put to work in China alone.

What jobs are most at risk?

Generally speaking, those involving repetitive physical tasks in predictable environments. Let’s take a look at the food industry; its tasks are mostly physical and repetitive, thus making it ripe for automation. The tasks are not very sophisticated, so one can easily design the environment where the work can be repetitively performed. For instance, some restaurants in China have already begun replacing servers with robots. Robot baristas make and serve coffee at Cafe X shops in San Francisco and San Jose, California.

In theory, at least ninty-one-percent of a short-order cook’s tasks can be automated using existing technology. It’s hundred percent for a dredge operator, painters, paperhangers, stucco mason, motion picture projectionist, and data entry keyers. 

By contrast, robots struggle with more complex work where conditions often change or emotional intelligence is required. But even the jobs that you’d think have very little or almost no risk of being replaced by robots aren’t safe either. Last year, the Guardian Australia newspaper published its first article written entirely by an automated system called ReporterMate. 

According to a news report, two of the most popular privately-owned fashion labels on the Indian e-­commerce site Myntra are designed using artificial intelligence. The catalog of these brands consists of everything from graphic logo t-shirts, types of denim for men, ethnic Kurtis, and trendy dresses. Sales of AI-designed shirts are “growing at 100 percent,” said Ananth Narayanan, Myntra’s CEO. “It’s working.”

How will this affect the workforce?

If one looks at history, one will find that apocalyptic warnings about technology wiping out the need for human labor have been given before, too, and they all proved to be untrue — although there is often a difficult transition period to new jobs requiring new skills. 

Farmers who found themselves out of jobs due to mechanized agriculture in the 19th century found their way to new, better-paying jobs in factories. When industrial automation threatened factory workers in the last century, many of the displaced workers transitioned to service work (however, the salaries were often low). So, if history is any guide, one can expect that some part of the labor that will be rendered obsolete by 2030 due to robots will get new types of occupations that have not existed before.

So will the impact be modest?

As said above, one can expect by looking at history that new types of occupations will be created for those rendered jobless by robots, and one should not worry about all the apocalyptic warnings out there. But, one can also argue that things are different this time; I’m saying this because the pace of automation is no longer linear but exponential. I don’t think the world economy will have the time to create new professions to absorb the tens of millions of workers displaced by automation. 

For instance, there are different estimates about when we will have autonomous ­vehicles. However, according to some, they are less than a decade away, yet 3.5 million Americans still work as truck drivers. And I guess for the very first time; the white-collar jobs are at risk here too. According to a report, about 1.3 million bank workers will lose their jobs or be reassigned due to automation in the US alone by 2030. Specific roles that stand to be disrupted include customer-service reps, financial managers, and compliance and loan officers. Displaced workers might find new jobs but at much lower salaries.

The last ‘robot apocalypse.’

Fear that automation would replace flesh-and-blood workers has come in several waves in United States history. The most recent came after World War II, as the technologies invented during the war were integrated into private industry, and the computer chip was invented. General Electric ran an advertisement reminding the populace that robots replace “drudgery — not people.” At the same time, IBM had to assure its office managers that computers “can only do what they are programmed to do,” who were refraining from buying them out of fear the clever machines would eventually replace them too. 

The Nation called automation “a ghost which frightens every worker in every plant. In the end, Yale Brozen (a specialist in applied economics, microeconomics, industrial organization, and technology) found that technology destroyed some thirteen million jobs during the 1950s but also created more than twenty million, as vast productivity growth led to the demand for more workers in aggregate — office personnel, engineers, maintenance staff — to keep pace with rising demand.

That’s all, folks!

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