Will Robots Steal Your Job?

AMA5-5-15The Second Machine Age has arrived. Tech experts now predict that by 2025, robots will have reached the level of human intelligence – and they’re poised to claim at least a third of the jobs done by humans.

Economists and job seekers have been worrying about the steady encroaching of machines into the working world for some time. ATMs were blamed for eliminating bank tellers. Self-serve checkouts took the jobs of grocery and department store checkers. Automated assembly lines put low-paid workers out of a job.

Add to that the steadily expanding use of smart software that conducts surveillance, navigation, and a host of other small and large functions, and it seems those worries are pretty well founded. But those early efforts to automate various functions for human convenience were only the beginning.

Robots and other kinds of automated machinery were originally developed to do the kinds of tasks humans wouldn’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t do – what a recent article from Business Insider calls the “dirty, dangerous and dull” work tasks. But as artificial intelligence technology moves forward, that’s changed.

Robots now assist surgeons in the operating room and nurses on hospital floors. They deliver meals in high security prisons and conduct medical exams and broker purchases. They even routinely beat humans at a variety of games and logic challenges. From simple automated technology, these mechanical workers are truly becoming another kind of intelligence, and their emergence in the white-collar workplace is making jobholders – and seekers – nervous.

Whether they should be nervous is a matter of debate. In an economy that’s driven by “job creation,” it’s ironic that existing jobs could disappear thanks to automation. But some economists argue that the jobs that could be lost to robots and smart software are largely ones that aren’t needed anyway – outmoded and irrelevant in rapidly advancing fields.

While that may be small comfort to the workers losing those jobs, some market watchers predict that the Second Machine Age will actually create more jobs, at least in the sectors related to the care and feeding of robots and AIs: design, development and maintenance. But those jobs usually come with a steep learning curve and require skills that displaced workers just don’t have – which in turn leads to a greater demand for training.

This Second Machine Age threatens to do for intelligence what the First Machine Age did for physical strength and endurance. That was ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, which saw the creation of machines that could work harder, longer and faster than any human could. Workers did lose jobs in the aftermath of that revolution, as industrial and commercial machines outperformed them at a fraction of the cost.

The possibility of a repeat of that scenario is what worries some experts, while others envision a future straight out of many science fiction novels, where robots rule and humans have either been relegated to machine serving slaves or eliminated altogether.

But just as in the First Machine Age, there are things that even today’s smartest machines just can’t do. They’re very good at performing linear, structured tasks and making decisions based on mathematical constructs and logic. But, experts say, they fail at some very human skills.

Artificial intelligences don’t work well when it comes to making judgment calls, responding to unexpected changes in sequences, and human interactions involving emotions like empathy. Fort hose reasons, trend watchers say, these evolving artificial intelligences will always need human overseers and colleagues to carry out those more complex tasks.

In any case, say futurists, there’s no need to worry about the coming of the Second Machine Age. It’s already here, sneaking up on us in many small ways we’re already used to: smartphones, virtual reality technologies, and GPS. Those things have become a part of life in less than a decade – and the coming decade will see much faster advances.

The Second Machine Age ushers in a new, exciting and uncertain future, with profound implications for the world of work. Whether jobs will be lost or eventually gained, it promises to have as much impact as the advent of the steam engine did a couple of centuries ago. (Top image: Flickr/PaulKeller)

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The American Monetary Association Team

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