Since the time automation was barely in its infancy, alarm bells have been sounding, warning us that intelligent machines would inevitably result in humanity’s ultimate undoing. Some of the more whimsical predictions even posited that the day would come when we would all be subjugated beneath the metallic heels of merciless robotic masters.
While the latter prophecy has yet to manifest itself, it now appears that the age of automation is truly upon us and it could have more profound consequences than previously considered, according to some experts.
The UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research recently issued an assessment concerning automation and the long-term effects it could have on the employment of human workers.
According to the study, automation will likely be a boon to national economy by cutting the labor needed to perform tasks that can easily be mechanized. The report also predicted that many workers will be able to shift to responsibilities that are in line with the new automation.
The UK alone would save £290 billion ($390 billion USD), based on estimates. The IPPR report recommended that the goal should be for the UK to become the most digitally advanced economy in the world by 2040.
But there is also a downside to all the national prosperity. The IPPR report also suggests that those whose jobs will be phased out are mostly among the poorest in society. The paper also predicts that automation could lead to an increase in wealth, income, gender, and racial inequalities, because women and certain ethnic groups make up a disproportionately larger part of the lower-paying jobs that would become automated.
Although the UK study might paint a bright picture for many workers, there is still much concern over the displacement of others, including some jobs that appear to be immune to automation.
A recent New York Times article raised some valid questions and offered a far different outlook for the future of human employment. While the IPPR paper focused on the elimination of lower-skilled jobs, the New York Times article addressed how improvements in artificial intelligence, coupled with automation, posed a credible threat to even the most highly skilled occupations.
The author bolsters his position by pulling examples of automation from medicine, law, air travel, finance, military, law enforcement, and even journalism. With each profession, the writer pointed to technology that is already in use and seemingly poised to take humans out of the equation. In every instance there was either software, or hardware coupled with “intelligent” software, that could outperform its human counterparts.
With the proliferation of so many machines that can do the same work that people used to do, one might ask, what will be left to do for all of us soon-to-be-unemployed humans?
The answer, however, is not all doom and gloom. According to Dr. Andrew McAfee, a management theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is still a future for humans who might dare to delve into the occupations of health coach or the hospitality field.
“I think health coaches are going to be a big industry of the future. Restaurants that have a very good hospitality staff are not about to go away, even though we have more options to order via tablet.”
And then there will always be a need for good plumbers, according to Dr. McAfee.
“The robot plumber is a long, long way away.”