Will robots take our jobs?

The real title of this page should be 'Will robots and artificial intelligence take our jobs?' or maybe it should be 'Resistance is useless!' which was the title of one of an excellent series of articles about this topic which appeared in November 2015, such as these:

Ever since the industrial revolution, people have worried that machines would take over the jobs done by humans. During the industrial revolution the Luddites famously smashed the steam-driven looms, afraid that hand weavers would be put out of work. But as steam power gradually replaced muscle power, humans simply moved to jobs that required brain rather than brawn, and job growth has almost kept pace with the increasing population so far. Why would that not continue to be so? Because now computers are approaching human levels of intelligence, and they are likely to become smarter than us with just a few decades. Once machines, computers and robots have taken over the 'brainy' jobs as well as the 'brawny' jobs, what will be left for humans? Not much, so my answer is clear: 'Yes, in developed countries, computers and robots will soon take over most of our existing jobs!' Robots and computers are getting good at jobs like building cars, writing articles, translating, carrying out surgical operations -- jobs that once required a human. It's amazing that this issue is not getting more attention. Are most people just sticking their heads in the sand? I think so. But why listen to my opinion when much-better qualified people are debating this?

Well-informed specialists tell us that perhaps as many as 80% of the jobs in the service sector (the dominant sector in western countries) will be taken over by computers and robots within a few decades. Click HERE to find our how likely it is that YOUR job will be automated within the next 20 years. Click HERE for an article 'How long will it take for your job to be automated?' Click HERE or HERE to find out how to robot-proof your career.

Not all experts are convinced, however, that automation is about to greatly reduce the number of jobs for humans. It all depends how many new jobs will be created. Even the McKinsey report mentioned above says that 'there may be enough work to maintain full employment to 2030'.

  • A hard-hitting article by MIT Technology Review claims that robots will NOT reduce the overall number of jobs for humans.
  • The International Robotics Federation echoes a report that says that 'robotics will be a major driver for global job creation over the next five years... One million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs, the study concluded. A growth in robot use over the next five years will result in the creation of one million high quality jobs around the world... 300,000 people are already employed in the industrial robotics sector and an additional 45,000 people will be required by the industry within five years.'

New technology does create some new jobs, at least temporarily, but it's a fact that new industries usually don't employ many people. Google, for example, has huge wealth and influence, but doesn't employ many people compared to the telecom companies of the late twentieth century. Instagram had 30 million users but only 13 employees when it was acquired by Facebook. Most people working today are doing jobs that existed a hundred years ago: retail, driving vehicles, serving in restaurants etc.

My answer to the people that say plenty of new jobs will be created just as technology takes away other jobs is that these people an important an important point. All we humans can offer the world of work is our mental and physical capabilities. For repetitive mechanical tasks, machines have already largely taken over from us, beginning with the industrial revolution of 200 year ago. For less repetitive physical tasks, robots, powered by sophisticated software, are making rapid progress after decades of disappointment through the latter half of the 20th century. Crucially, if computers become smarter than us within the coming decades then computers and robots will be able to replace us, and do the job better, in almost any kind of job. If new jobs are created for humans then very quickly robots and computers will take them over - just as soon as the software can be developed, which thanks to AI should be very quick and easy. Until now there have always been plenty of jobs that could not be done by computers and robots - that won't be true much longer. Some say that the only kind of job that can never be replaced is the kind where an emotional connection is essential, such as a personal fitness coach whose human emotional connection with the client is key to being able to motivate that client. Even there, we could imagine that a robot might be able to simulate human emotion well enough to be able to achieve the same results (would that be ethical?).

Another interesting question is: if robots and computers take over our jobs, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Would it be a catastrophe is computers and robots take over most jobs currently done by humans? A lot of people would say so. They would say that the current need for us to work gives us a sense of purpose and that we get satisfaction from the work we do (even if most people don't particularly like working). But a few decades ago most people's idea of 'utopia' was a world in which computers and robots would do all the work and humans would be free to do... whatever they want. Even back in 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century, technology would have enabled the working week to be reduced to 15 hours with the rest of the time devoted to leisure. So what happened in the meantime? How did a utopian dream turn into a nightmare?

This excellent article 'A World Without Work' addresses this issue directly, and is a great place to start. The Guardian article Welcome to a world without work is also excellent. The Guardian also has an article 'Automation may mean a post-work society but we shouldn't be afraid' which includes a neat video.

Also check out the video below which presents a pessimistic view:

In this second video Andrew McAfee walks through recent labor data to say: We ain't seen nothing yet. But then he steps back to look at big history, and comes up with a surprising and even thrilling view of what comes next...

Here is another TED talk by McAfee on similar lines:

And yes, here's another:

This last 20 minute TEDx video below from December 2014 presents the field of 'deep learning' which I assume is similar to artificial intelligence. It's clear from the last two minutes of the video that deep learning directly threatens the 80% of jobs in Western countries that are in the service sector. Furthermore it is clear that the arrival of deep learning will not create anything like as many jobs as it will suppress.

See also:

and these books:

  • The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee (yes, him again)
  • The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford

Going back to my reference to 'utopia' above, it is true that a few decades ago many people would have described utopia as a place where no one needs to work and everyone can spend their time as they wish, whether that be studying for its own sake, doing sport, relaxing, creating, travelling, 'working' for pleasure etc etc. But somehow the 'promise' of technology relieving us of the need to work has become a threat. People fear unemployment now because of course in our current society being unemployed means having a low income and a comparatively low standard of living. The old vision of utopia as a world where, thanks to technology, no one needs to work, can only be truly utopic if all those people who are not working are able to have a high standard of living, which to me implies that it will be necessary to vastly modify the way society works so that all the wealth generated by the technology is distributed to all those people who are not working (which one day may be almost everyone) rather than passing only to those who own the technology. I'm not very politically aware, but this sounds similar to Marxism, doesn't it, except that I am setting this in the future where no one needs to work, rather that referring to masses of exploited workers.

There is remarkably little discussion as to how the world needs to change in order to prepare for the massive loss of jobs for humans as computers and robots take them over! However, one related concept has been receiving a lot of attention recently: the idea of a universal basic income, a monthly payment that would be made to all adults for life whether that are working or not to ensure that they can have a decent standard of living. The system would reduce bureaucracy by allowing for the suppression of some other kinds of benefit and could paradoxically encourage some people to seek work who currently are not motivated to do so, such as those receiving unemployment benefit who are not interested in accepting low-paid or short-duration work because they would lose too much of their unemployment benefit. On the other hand, a basic income could be seen as something that would encourage people to be lazy. It's an interesting discussion and worthy of a dedicated page.