Automation vs. Jobs: The Long and the Short of It.

This chapter appears concurrently in Age of Robots and includes content and quotes garnered from interviews with James J. Hughes, Jerome Glenn, Ian Pearson, Richard Yonck, John C. Havens and Alexandra Whittington on the Seeking Delphi™ podcast between April of 2017 and November of 2018. **

 “There are no right answers to wrong questions.”—Ursula K. LeGuin

Will automation kill jobs?  That’s not exactly the wrong question, but it is an incomplete one.  Which automation—robots, computers, A.I.?  Which industries?  And most important, in what time frame? The next five years are particularly fuzzy; things are simply changing too fast to tell.

Some History

On the eve of the iconic year of 1984, Isaac Asimov published an article envisioning the society of 2019.1 He foresaw a world where computerization and robots would change the world of work, and computer literacy would be vital for the jobs of the future.  He was right.

On the other hand, he conjectured that the transition to a more automated workplace would be largely complete by 2019.  He was clearly wrong.  The extent of the uncertainty and the varied nature of the many feasible scenarios indicate that the transition, if anything, is far from over.  We still don’t know the outcome;  but the next five years may bring us closer to knowing some answers.  Even then, though, we still might find much uncertainty.  Rapid change and disruption could become a permanent state.

Technological change has become so rapid—and to some extent chaotic–that even futurists feel challenged in ways they never have before.  Consider these words from James J. Hughes, executive director and co-founder of The Institute for Ethics in Emerging Technology:

“We’ve had the general experience over the past ten years that It’s hard to be a futurist nowadays.  You think up something that you think is going to be, for five or ten years, an issue that you’ll be able to be the only person talking about it.  Two weeks later it’s in the White House or in the European parliament being debated.” **

If futurists can’t keep up with it, how can the rest of us?

The Hype

The popular media, in its never-ending quest for click bait, greatly oversimplifies the questions.  This is particularly true of artificial intelligence and job loss.

“What we hear about [it] is mainly hype,” says Alexandra Whittington, Foresight Director of Fast Future Publishing. **

Jerome Glenn, chair of The Millennium Project and lead author on their State of The Future publications, points out that it is important to distinguish between types of A.I.  The narrow A.I. we currently have generally is focused on a single task, like playing chess or arranging airline schedules.  Human-like artificial general intelligence could be a much broader threat, but we have no idea when, or even if it will ever be achieved.  So, near term, he sees the less disruptive narrow A.I. as all that is on the table. **

The current flap over automation job reduction probably started with a 2013 report by the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University, entitled The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization.2 Supported by mountains of statistics and advanced mathematical formulas, they came up with the assertion that 47% of all U.S. jobs are highly susceptible to being automated, and therefore eliminated.  That was only the beginning.

Following a 2017 report by McKinsey that 800 million jobs globally could be affected by automation by 2030, a torrent of gloom and doom articles appeared in the mass media.  Just consider some of these:

  • Automation could destroy millions of jobsThe Guardian, August 2018
  • America is unprepared for the job apocalypse automation will bringCBS News, June 2018
  • Will robots take your job? Humans ignore the coming A.I. revolution at their peril—NBC News, February 2018
  • One million jobs will disappear by 2026. How to prepare for an automation future—CNBC, February 2018.

Emotional, knee-jerk reaction to the headlines has led to what could be characterized as a kind of neo-Luddism.

Like the early 18th century efforts to by weavers destroy automated weaving looms and by horse breeders to block the proliferation of steam powered “horseless carriages,” there have sprung up various efforts to block technology today.  Consider, then, these headlines:

  • Professional Taxi Drivers In New York Want Self-Driving Cars Banned for 50 Years—com, January 2017
  • The Beef Industry is Desperately Fighting Lab-Grown Meats Over Labeling—Uproxx.com, February 2018

But there have also appeared many rebuttals to the doom and gloom scenarios, and one does have to drill down in these reports to fully in understand what might be going on.   The devil is most certainly in the details.

So, what exactly did McKinsey say?  It’s less stark than immediately meets the eye.  While over half of all existing workers could have up to a third of their functions automated, they also said only 5% of current jobs are fully replaceable by automation.  At least for now.  They further made projections of millions of jobs created by A.I. and robotics and suggested that only between 3 and 14% of all workers will need to find new occupations by 2030.3

Clearly, it is only certain jobs in certain industries that are likely to disappear in the near term.  And while cattle breeder and taxi driver are two occupations eventually in peril, it may already be too late to save the latter.  Uber and Lyft are seeing to that.

Historically, the ultimate technological demise of many industries has simply resulted in job creation in new industries; often many more jobs then were lost.  The loss of most jobs for horse breeding in the early 20th century led to creation of many more in automotive manufacturing, maintenance,  professional driving, and the petroleum industry.

But people have short memeories, and the speed and pervasiveness threatened currently by multiple disruptive technologies will likely dwarf anything seen in the past.

Hughes sees the push back against technology in these terms:

“Trump says he is going to bring back all these jobs, but he has never dealt with the impact of automation in the erosion of industrial jobs.  Luddism makes sense if there is no vision of how everyone gets fed and how we can have a good society without traditional jobs”. **

 

The Optimist

One optimist is noted British futurist and author Ian Pearson.  Writing in his Futurizen blog in March of 2017, Pearson states:

AI has been getting a lot of bad press the last few months from doom-mongers predicting mass unemployment. Together with robotics, AI will certainly help automate a lot of jobs, but it will also create many more and will greatly increase quality of life for most people.4

How can he be so sanguine in opposition to the torrent of doom and gloom saying in the popular press?  He asserts that there is a lot of counterbalance that is being ignored in the press and sees three main areas of robotic and A.I. job creation. **

These include, first, the need to program and maintain robots and A.I “Even with industrial robots you need a skilled workman on the factory floor showing them what to do,” he says.  But industrial robots are a lot easier to program than more general-purpose artificial intelligence, which he compares to the complexities of teaching children.  He believes that, though this won’t last forever, it will get us quite a few decades of extra jobs.

A second area is in jobs where what he terms “emotional repertoire” is required.  In things like interacting with patients and maintaining customer relationships, A.I. can only do so much.  “It can’t pick up body language or facial expressions and can’t tell whether you’re lying or exaggerating. Having a nurse or a technician between you and the AI can allow you to give far more detail to that program.”  He also suggests that people won’t open up to a computer program or robot in the same manner that they might to another human being. “The human forces you to be more open and honest about whatever it is you are doing.”

Third, he believes A.I. and other forms of automation will aide entrepreneurship.

“I think a lot of us would be an entrepreneur if it wasn’t so difficult,” he says.  He sees setting up a small company as a daunting task with tons of red tape, which can easily be farmed out to A.I., as long with handling logistics of manufacturing and shipping.  Adding artificial intelligence to a green employee, and you “upskill” them as he says, and makes them a more useful employee.

The fly in all this ointment is the emergence of emotional A.I., or affective computing.  Richard Yonck is a futurist author who has written on the subject, and to some extent warns that A.I. that can read, and react appropriately, to human emotion, might threaten even the jobs that Pearson described.

Pearson does not entirely disagree with him. He thinks that Yonck is talking about a different time horizen than he is.   He sees A.I. able to do just about everything humans can do, and then some, by around 2050.  But in the near term of just a few years, he still sees it as a more stimulative technology.

The Skeptic—

Richard Yonck (author, Heart of the Machine)  puts himself somewhere in between Pearson and the more pessimistic doomsayers in the foresight and economics communities.

In a 2017 interview he stated:

I think it will have a strong impact but probably not as severe as some of the prognostications. Automation, computerization A.I. and so forth.  But we saw from the great recession we don’t need to have 46 per cent of jobs to go away to have an enormous impact.  It’s true there are going to be new jobs and new value, and additional value placed on human emotional capabilities.  I half agree there will be a number of new jobs that arise out of qualities that are distinctly human in whatever role. Nursing, teaching, psychotherapy, roles where we have a level of emotional connection that machines simply cannot or will not have for a good few decades.  But I question whether that could offset all of the losses. **

Conclusions

So where do we go from here? It’s complicated.

Almost to a person, the pundits quoted above look at Universal Basic Income as a solution to mass technological unemployment.

Hughes puts it this way:

“We have been advocating for the importance of grappling with technological unemployment and advocating for universal basic income guarantee.  That’s now become mainstream. We need to be able to make that deal with the public. Yes, lots of people are going to lose their jobs, but we’re going to get all this cool stuff and we’re going to make sure that everyone gets fed and everyone’s going to have an income. Folks don’t really believe it yet, they don’t see the politics. “**

Another possible solution—attitudinal, rather than socialistic—comes from Heartificial Intelligence author John C. Havens.  He sees that the currently dominant economic model in the West as a roadblock to preventing automation job. He thinks that it makes no sense to have all these fantastic, disruptive technologies but still be living in an economic system based on GDP developed in 1944.

”It’s absurd not to bring societal infrastructure up to the level of technology.” He says and cites a possible solution in adopting what is called the triple bottom line, emphasizing not only growth and profitability, but also human and environmental well being. **

But again, one must ask oneself, is there any likelihood of the politics and economics being there for either of these solutions—at least in the short term?

The silver lining in the cloud, at least for the next few years, is that only a few select professions in a few industries are in danger of disappearing entirely.  While taxi drivers are under assault from ride sharing, the autonomous-driving demise of all professional taxi and truck drivers appears much farther out.

The stark fact, as of this writing, is that much of the West is experiencing labor shortages.  Even China is facing a shortfall of over 20 million skilled tech workers in the next few years.5    In the near term, labor shortages, rather than profits, may drive the proliferation of automation.

The verdict, then, is that we have not achieved the new equilibrium that Asimov envisioned by now.  Change has accelerated but is nowhere near complete.  We don’t now know for sure where it all will lead; we might have a better idea in five years.

Questions:

Which jobs in which industries and in what timeframe are most likely to be transformed or completely displaced by technology?

Will automation deployment be accelerated as a short-term solution to skilled labor shortages?

How should society deal with job loss due to automation?

**Sackler, M. (2017-2018). Seeking Delphi™.  from https://seekingdelphi.com/podcasts/

  1. Asimov, I. (2019). 35 years ago, Isaac Asimov was asked by the Star to predict the world of 2019 Here is what he wrote.   https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2018/12/27/35-years-ago-isaac-asimov-was-asked-by-the-star-to-predict-the-world-of-2019-here-is-what-he-wrote.html
  2. (2019). Oxacuk.   https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf
  3. Mckinsey, . (2017). Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages.  https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/jobs-lost-jobs-gained-what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages
  4. Pearson, I.D. (2017). The more accurate guide to the future.   https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/03/26/ai-is-mainly-a-stimulative-technology-that-will-create-jobs/
  5. People’s daily. (2019). China to see shortage of 22 million high-end technical workers by 2020.  http://en.people.cn/n3/2019/0115/c90000-9537759.html

 

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Podcast #25: Women and The Future of A.I. with Alexandra Whittington

 “A woman is like a tea bag–you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”–Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Artificial Intelligence–it seems there is no hotter topic in the tech world these days.  Economists try to calculate its potential effects on jobs, car companies aim to tame it for autonomous driving, and big thinkers ala Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking espouse existential worries.  But the effects potentially dig down deeper, broader, and perhaps with more subtlety in many other areas of human experience.  One sometimes overlooked area of artificial intelligence influence is the effects it may have specifically on women’s issues–both in the workplace and in the home.  Alexandra Whittington, of Fast Future Publishing, joins host Mark Sackler for a discussion of these issues on episode #25 of Seeking Delphi.™

All Seeking Delphi™  podcasts are available on iTunes, PlayerFM, and  YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook and on twitter @MarkSackler

 

Alexandra Whittington is a futurist, writer, foresight director of Fast Future, and faculty member on the Futures program at the University of Houston. She has a particular expertise in future visioning and scenario planning. Alexandra is a contributor to The Future of Business, Beyond Genuine Stupidity—Ensuring AI Serves Humanity, and The Future Reinvented—Reimagining Life, Society, and Business, and a co-editor for forthcoming books Unleashing Human Potential—The Future of AI in Business and 50:50—Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.

Click image for link

 

 

 

 

 

Episode #25: Women and The Future of A.I. with Alexandra Whittington

YouTube slide show: Episode #25

A reminder that this and all Seeking Delphi ™podcasts are available on iTunes, PlayerFM, and  YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook and on twitter @MarkSackler

News of The Future This Week: September 25, 2018

“If I go to hotels, they always say, ‘Welcome back’, even when I’ve never been there before.“– Geena Davis

There’s a solution to Geena Davis’s problem.  I don’t know if you’re going to like it. But I know the hotel workers of the world are scared to death of it.  Even as the World Economic Forum projects that robots will create more jobs than they kill,  hospitality workers around the world are talking unionizing to protect jobs if Alexa replaces them on the front desk.

While you’re reading about all this week’s future-related  news, don’t forget that you can subscribe to Seeking Delphi™ podcasts on iTunes, PlayerFM, or YouTube (audio with slide show) and you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook 

Automation/Future of Work–The New York Times reports that front desk robots and facial recognition may soon be coming to a hotel near you.   And hotel workers around the world are not pleased.

It’s not all bad news, according to a new report by the World Economic Forum.  While 80 million jobs could vanish by 2022–robots will consume them– 133 million new ones could take their place.  The question is, do the displaced workers possess the skills for the new jobs?  They might not.

Peekaboo. I hope they see you.

 —And maybe, just maybe, some technologies can help make things better for worker and customer alike.  To that end, Walmart has placed an order for 17,000 Oculus Go headsets, with an aim toward using virtual reality in worker training.

Space Technology/Space Commerce–DARPA has awarded $1.3 million to a Plymouth University to conduct a feasibility study on a new space propulsion system called quantized inertia.  It’s based on an idea to use light, rather than fuel, to create thrust.

–Meanwhile, NASA is concerned with what astronauts are going to eat on a 2 1/2 year journey to Mars and back.  They can’t carry that much food with them, so they are going to have to be able to grow it.

Mars Base Alpha. 2028 or 2048–or never?

Elon Musk continues to pursue an aggressive timeline for his SpaceX venture to colonize Mars.  He now sets 2028 as the goal for establishing Mars Base Alpha.  I’m not betting on it just yet…

Less ambitious–and a safer bet for 2028–is the Chinese plan for that year.  They propose to launch there gargantuan Long March 9 into low earth orbit that year, carrying as much as 140 tons of cargo.

–NASA…SpaceX…China…Russia…well, Japan beat them all.  This week their space agency became the first to land rovers on an asteroid.  They project to bring samples back by 2020.

Future Internet–Speaking at a private event earlier this week, former Google CEO warned that the internet may split completely in two by 2028.  The issue is China, as they pursue their own agenda to censor much of the world’s content from their populace and create their own.

Seeking Delphi™ podcasts are available on iTunes, PlayerFM, or YouTube (audio with slide show) and you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook 

Podcast #24: The State of The Future, with Jerome Glenn

The future ain’t what it used to be.”–Yogi Berra

“We’re doing a lot better than people think.”–Jerome Glenn, on The State of The Future.

Ah, you have to love Yogi.  He had no idea what he was talking about.  But–surprise, surprise–the blind squirrel does occasionally find a nut.  Because the future and all of its possibilities–its challenges and opportunities–is constantly changing.  Just ask Jerome Glenn and his colleagues in Millennium Project,  who have issued 19 editions of The State of The Future over the past 20-plus years.  I did;  that is the basis for Seeking Delphi™ podcast #24: The State of The Future with Jerome Glenn.

All Seeking Delphi™  podcasts are available on iTunes, PlayerFM, and  YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook and on twitter @MarkSackler

 

Jerome Glenn: click for bio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking Delphi™ Episode #24: The State of The Future with Jerome Glenn

YouTube slide show, Episode #24

The State of The Future on Amazon.com

Global Futures Intelligence System

A reminder that this and all Seeking Delphi ™podcasts are available on iTunes, PlayerFM, and  YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook and on twitter @MarkSackler

News of The Future This Week: April 6, 2018

“The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”–Neil DeGrasse Tyson

“This is the way the world ends.  With a whimper, not a bang.”–TS Eliot

 

NDT is absolutley correct, but TS Eliot?  Maybe not so much. The latest theory of how the universe will end is most decidedly with a bang: a second big bang, to be precise.  But it’s probably a few trillion years in the future–assuming the math is correct.

While you’re reading about all this week’s future-related  news, don’t forget that you can subscribe to Seeking Delphi™ podcasts on iTunes, PlayerFM, or YouTube (audio with slide show) and you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook 

Cosmology–According to a new Harvard study,  the universe might end with a second big bang, caused by changes to the Higgs Boson.  While the process may have already begun in some distant galaxy, it’s  most likely to occur trillions of years in the future.    So return those overdue library books now.

–While the universe is still here, a team based at Plymouth University in the UK has published a study suggesting artificial intelligence can be use to predict the likelihood of life on other planets. 

Credit: USC

Transhumanism–A DARPA-funded prosthetic memory system has shown significant efficacy.  Researchers at Wake Forrest and USC report a  35%+ imrovement in memory by writing codes directly into the hippocampus of subjects.

Future of Work–A new OECD report projects that job losses from automation and robotics in coming years may not be a severe as some are projecting.  Just 14% of jobs are at high risk of automation in OECD countries, they say, versus the 47% risk cited in an Oxford University study.

Quantum Computing–IBM announced a new initiative to work with several startup companies to further develop applications for quantum computing.  One of the companies is Strangeworks, started by whurley, and briefly discussed in the Seeking Delphi™ podcast, with You Tube link below.

whurley on Quantum Computing and Strangeworks

Aerospace–NASA awarded a contract to Lockheed-Martin to build its first  supersonic X-plane slated for test flights by 2021.  The craft is designed to break the sound barrier over land, without blasting the ground with sonic booms.

3D printed bridge or robot pasta?

3D Printing–Dutch company MX3D is creating a fully funcional 3D printed stainless steel bridge to cross one of Amsterdam’s canals.  It looks eerie, to say the least.

You can subscribe to Seeking Delphi™ podcasts on iTunes, PlayerFM, or YouTube (audio with slide show) and you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook 

News of the Future This Week, March 8, 2018

“Life is a DNA software system.”–Craig Ventner

You’ve heard it all, and lately you’re hearing it more.  The singularity is near.  Robots are going to take our jobs.  Robots are going to take over altogether.  Robots are even going to take over our sex lives.  Yadda yadda yadda.

I’m not saying it won’t happen;  I just think it’s farther away than the impression most people are getting from all the news.  What’s here right now is genetic editing, and with it, the possibility of directing human evolution. The very real and very near possibility of changing what it means to be human.  Read all the artificial intelligence and future of work articles–yes.  But keep your eye on the gene editing ball–it’s here right now.

Seeking Delphi™ will be at SXSW 2018 in Austin, TX through Wednesday of next week.  Stay tuned for updates on the Intelligent Future track.

While you’re reading about all this week’s future-related  news, don’t forget that you can subscribe to Seeking Delphi™ podcasts on iTunes, PlayerFM, or YouTube (audio with slide show) and you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook 

Gene editing/synthetic biology–A Japanese team has created a new genetic editing process so precise it can edit a single letter of DNA.  Called MhAX, it works by combining the gene editing tool CRISPR with a DNA repair technique.

–If you thought IBM was only about information technology and business processes, think again.  Researchers at the compnay  are making headway in the development of synthetic molecules that might be able to replace antibiotics in the fight against drug resistant infectious organisms.

The Future of Work–Speaking of artificial intelligence, maybe it is coming to take jobs.  But a new Gallup survey suggests that most Americans think it will take somebody else’s job–not theirs.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Autonomous Vehicles/Advanced Transportation–If job disruptive technology is at hand, can Luddism be far behind?  Apparently not, as recent attacks on self-driving vehicles in San Franscisco demonstrate.

–If cars are ever going to be fully autonomous, every aspect of the operation needs to be designed to be human-free.  Even headlights.  Engineers at Mercedes Benz have now done just that, they’ve designed smart, autonomous headlights.

Energy–Elon Musk has been rather quiet lately–for him–as far as these weekly reports go.  Not to worry; his latest idea is to equip 50,000 Australian homes with his Tesla solar roofing tiles and lithium ion batteries, to create a virtual power plant.

Tesla solar roofing tiles look like…well…roofing tiles.

Chinese Space Station–China’s failing space station is due to come crashing back into the atmosphere within the next few weeks.  Fear not, though.  Your own future probably doesn’t include getting conked on the head by the falling debris.  Experts have calculated your chances of being hit as a million times more remote than winning Powerball.   That equates to about one in three hundered trillion.

A reminder that the Seeking Delphi™ podcast is available on iTunesPlayerFM, blubrry , and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.