The future of automation: At the beginning of the first Terminator movie, Sarah Connor, the future mother of the Earth resistance movement, is working as a waitress when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Terminator is sent back in time to kill her. But what if, instead of trying to kill her, Skynet’s android assassin approaches the owner of Big Jeff’s family restaurant, where Sarah worked, and offers to work shifts for less pay, while working faster and making fewer mistakes? Left unemployed, Sarah, unable to support herself, drops out of college and decides that perhaps starting a family in this economic climate just isn’t wise. Hey presto: John Connor is gone.
This, in somewhat cyberbolic form, is the biggest immediate threat many people fear when it comes to automation: Not a robopocalypse caused by superintelligence, but rather something that ushers in an era of technological unemployment.
Some very smart people have been sounding the alarm for some time. A 2013 study by the Oxford Martin School found that about 47% of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades-just 12 years after the study was published. Like Hemingway’s old quote about bankruptcy, that it happens “gradually and then suddenly,” the authors suggested that in the first wave, office and administrative workers, as well as workers in manufacturing occupations, would be eliminated by Thanos. In the second wave, all tasks involving finger dexterity, feedback, observation, and working in confined spaces will be absorbed by software.
Why do so many jobs still exist?
Until now, it hasn’t happened in such catastrophically large numbers. In fact, hiring by the big tech companies that have invested the most in automation is ahead of many other industries. Amazon, which once cut back its editorial staff in favor of algorithmic recommendation systems and is constantly working to robotize its warehouses, hired an additional 175,000 people last March when the lockout over the coronavirus began. Other tech companies, such as Netflix, also didn’t hesitate to hire, even as COVID was disrupting many industries.
These companies certainly benefited from a very difficult time in world history. Streaming media companies, communications companies like Zoom, device makers like Apple, and all-for-all e-commerce stores like Amazon were perfectly positioned to capitalize on the fact that the world was stuck at home. But it illustrates the complexity of the situation. Potentially human replacement A.I.’s, robotics and other technological infrastructure made these “unicorns” even more unicorn-like, which in turn meant they could hire more people.
These effects may seem counterintuitive. In an essay titled “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation,” MIT economics professor David Autor looked at the quadrupling of ATMs between 1995 and 2010 and how it affected the number of tellers working at banks. An ATM, of course, is not the same as an advanced robot, but one would assume that an additional 300,000 ATMs dispensing money would reduce the number of people hired to dispense money.
In fact, the number of bank tellers grew by 50,000 over the same period. ATMs meant that more bank employees could be freed up to focus on what Autor calls “banking relationships.” The author notes that technology meant that bank employees were no longer “tellers, but . salespeople establishing relationships with customers and offering them additional banking services such as credit cards, loans and investment products.”
A supplement, not a replacement
That’s the main promise of tools like A.I. – that they won’t so much replace humans as supplement them. We are told that they will remove boring, dirty and dangerous work, allowing people to focus on more important tasks. If that’s the case, that’s great. No one bemoans the fact that technology (and civilization in general) got rid of child laborers in Victorian England. Perhaps we won’t be too saddened by the fact that some mindless data-processing tasks or dirty jobs – not to mention potentially deadly ones – will pass into the hands of robots.
An increasing number of jobs are likely to be hybrid, in which humans work alongside machines.
The composition of jobs changes over time. In 1800, 90 percent of U.S. residents lived and worked on farms. Today, the vast majority live and work in cities. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, “Jobs of the Future,” notes that 63% of today’s jobs did not exist just 80 years ago, in the early 1940s. Since 1990, more than 1,500 new occupations have emerged as official job categories, including software engineers, SEO experts and database administrators. Many of these occupations are technology-based, but other types of occupations are “high-level” occupations based on personal interaction, which only seems to become more important as our lives become increasingly digital.
An increasing number of jobs are likely to be hybrid, in which people work side by side with machines. In some cases, it will be technologies such as RPA (robotic process automation) tools that can sit on a person’s desk and tell them how best to do their job, such as prioritizing tasks or complying in professions that require compliance. AI that recognizes emotions can help identify callers’ emotions and direct them to the right operator in the call center.
Meanwhile, technology companies are benefiting from so-called AAI, or “artificial intelligence,” where humans help perform tasks that A.I. is not currently capable of. Twitter, for example, employs contracted people called judges whose duties include interpreting the meaning of various search terms that are part of the service’s trends. Meanwhile, in Amazon’s fulfillment centers, robots such as those from Boston-based Kiva Systems (bought by Amazon nearly a decade ago) are used to move around shelves of shelves, delivering them to a human “picker,” who can then use his fine motor skills to select the right item for packaging.
The Future of Employment
The big question is how all of this will affect human employment in the future. As artificial intelligence gets smarter, more and more tasks that currently require human involvement can be automated. There are A.I. bots capable of performing certain tasks that used to be considered worthy of a high social capital job, such as a lawyer. Human drivers can now be hired to supervise A.I.’s driving autonomous vehicles, giving them more convenient and communicative work hours during which they don’t have to be on the road for days on end.
But will this always be the case? Probably not. The same is true for picking up items from Amazon’s warehouses and, perhaps one day, for delivering packages to customers’ doors. However, as some of this low-hanging fruit comes off, people will be able to take on the higher-hanging fruit that machines are not yet capable of.
Automation itself will not lead to job theft, as some fear. It is a far more complex landscape than such a simple view of things would suggest. It will dominate some jobs, but it will also open up new forms of employment, most of which (though not all) involve developing, maintaining, or working with this new technological infrastructure. As the hiring practices of technology giants and Autor’s ATM study show, the idea that companies that invest in technology are necessarily bad for workers is not an unequivocal conclusion.
What technology can – and probably will – do is exacerbate societal trends. About four decades ago, many American workers faced a divergence in the trajectory of rising wages and rising productivity. Technology, many note, is likely to deepen the middle class, pushing some to higher wages and job quality while making it harder for others. It will also mean a society in which participants are constantly retraining and upgrading their skills, in part to stay on the right side of the wave of technological change. But there is much more nuance to this picture than is sometimes presented.
The American historian Melvin Kranzberg famously said that “technology is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral. The same can be said of its likely impact on the labor market. It is complex. But where there is chaos, there are opportunities.