Some, in fact, have gone so far as to adopt a dystopian view of the future, one in which the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning results in human extinction.
No less a figure than the late Stephen Hawking once said that AI, when fully developed, “could spell the end of the human race.” And one of the pioneers in the field, Alan Turing, espoused the idea back in 1951 that the machines would “outstrip our feeble powers” and “take control.”
Not exactly a cheery notion. Ditto for the possibility that mankind might do away with itself before the robots ever get the chance. (Consider war, disease, climate change, etc.)
For now, there is this question, which brings with it ample cause for unease: How will automation affect the job market?
It has been estimated that nearly half of all current occupations in the United States will give way to automation somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and that 30 percent of the workforce is faced with the very real possibility that 60 percent of their jobs can be done by machines.
Particularly vulnerable are four of the most common American jobs — salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server and office clerk — which account for 15.4 million people, or some 10 percent of the labor force.
There are obvious economic concerns, as well as psychological ones. Work, author Derek Thompson once wrote in The Atlantic, has always been “America’s Unofficial Religion,” the thing that gives us purpose, direction and self-esteem. Without it, where are we as a people, as a nation?
It has been noted that with every previous technological revolution, more jobs were created than lost. That might very well be the case now. No one could have envisioned, for instance, the degree to which such ride-sharing apps as Uber and Lyft would disrupt the taxi industry; same for Airbnb and the hotel industry.
Then again, consider how much more the driverless car will disrupt ride-sharing. And look at other fields, and the way they have been streamlined by technology. In 1964, AT&T was the leader in the communications field. According to The Atlantic, that company was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars, and employed over 750,000 people.
Today Google is the leader in that space. It is worth $370 billion, but employs just 55,000 people. While just five percent of the jobs created between 1993 and 2013 were of the high-tech variety — and thus more labor-efficient — that number only figures to increase, as automation becomes more prevalent. “Sooner or later,” economic historian Robert Skidelsky told The Atlantic, “we will run out of jobs.”
Clearly, some degree of reinvention is (and will be) in order. Experts disagree on exactly which jobs will be lost, and where. But it’s coming. It’s inevitable. Already we have seen companies forced to lay off lower-level workers because they were no longer needed, then develop other openings for tech-savvy types — and struggle to fill them, because people with those skill sets proved difficult to find.
A solution in that case might be “uptraining” — regularly training your employees so that they are able to adapt to the constant technological changes.
Moreover, there are certain jobs that still require a human touch (and perhaps always will) — jobs like those in healthcare, education and hospitality. In those occupations empathy is vital, and a one-on-one connection is irreplaceable. And that is something even the most sophisticated machines cannot provide.
In addition, computers require oversight. Or, to put it another way, collaboration is key in this new era—not only between people but between man and machine. Robots and sensors need to be maintained, algorithms developed, different technological devices overseen.
Thompson raised an interesting possibility about the future of American labor when he noted that in the Industrial Revolution of the early 20th Century, the U.S. transitioned from an artisanal economy to one centered on manufacturing. Now, he believes, things could swing the other way, where there is an accent on creativity.
For proof, he pointed out how much can be done with a 3-D printer in this day and age, and noted the proliferation of “makerspaces,” where members pay a monthly fee to make use of all manner of old-school machinery, whether to weld, finish, paint or grind.
While computers are unlikely to venture down that road, let the record show that they have exhibited some creative abilities. IBM’s Watson, for instance, was able to conjure up a movie trailer on its own. More developments to follow, to be sure.
Where American workers are concerned, the most likely scenario is a continuation of the trend toward a gig economy. The number of temporary employees has increased by 50 percent since 2010, and that number is expected to rise. That means people are devoting themselves to such things as not only Uber and Lyft, but also Seamless (meal delivery), Homejoy (house cleaning), Fiverr (writing, marketing, editing, video, etc.) and TaskRabbit (general labor), among other digitally-engaged service offerings.
The obvious challenge is making a living wage, and there appear to be no good answers on that front. One suggestion is for the the eventual implementation of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which would allow everyone to receive a regular government payment, but opinion is divided as to the efficacy of such a plan.
Beyond that, there is the question of what Americans would do with extra free time. While a 2014 Gallup poll showed that 70 percent of us don’t feel engaged by our jobs, there is also evidence that on some level we need them, not only because they give us a sense of self-worth but because there is a social aspect. A 1989 study showed people are more content to complain about their jobs than to have time off, and while the rest of the developed world is only too happy to go on holiday, we continue to grind away. Between 1950 and 2012, the number of hours worked by Europeans fell, and in countries like Germany and the Netherlands dropped by as much as 40 percent. That figure was only 10 percent in the U.S., and college-educated Americans are actually working more than they were 30 years ago.
Things are changing, though. Technology is making it so. And that is going to make for a continuing challenge on the job front.