Will Robots Rob our Kids of Jobs?

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The exponential growth of computing power combined with digitalization* has enabled the creation of technology that is turning science fiction into today’s reality.    This new reality is embodied not only in our devices but also in robots and other types of computers that are slowly replacing humans on manufacturing production lines and in customer service centres.

Many human abilities that were previously thought to be too difficult or too costly to break down into computer code, and thus protected us from losing our job to technology, now seem to be within the reach of robots.

So should we be worried that robots will take away all the jobs?  To answer that question, let’s rewind.

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 ushered in the first “Information Age”.  The printing press was revolutionary because it could produce a massive number of copies of a particular book in the time it would take a human to make one (previously the only method available for copying text).   With more books came more information available to everyone.  With more information came opportunities to move intellectual progress forward much faster through greater sharing.  And, with information more readily at their fingertips, just about everyone became more empowered to make their own decisions and create new ways of bringing value to the marketplace.

The invention of the modern notion of childhood and primary school also owes a lot to Mr. Gutenberg.  In the mostly oral culture that existed before the invention of the printing press,  as soon as child could speak with proficiency (usually age 7), they were deemed capable of “reason” and taking responsibility for their actions.  However, in a print-base culture, the new definition of adulthood was based on reading competency, which required a considerable amount of schooling.  This postponed the transition into full adulthood to the age of 12 or more. 1

The first information age pushed our minds and our social development forward through freedom of information.

Freedom from Limitations

Fast-forward to 1775: The invention of the Steam Engine by James Watt kick-starts a series of innovations now known as the “Industrial Revolution”.  The recurring theme of the industrial age was freedom from physical limitations. Machines blew the lid off productivity by freeing it from the limitations of human and animal muscle.   The fuel that powered the machines (first steam, then electricity and petroleum) gave those machines mobility.  Steam (later helped along by the invention of steel) revolutionized land and sea travel, opening the door to both the emergence of an entrepreneurial middle class and globalization.  Electricity freed factories to be designed around natural work flows (as opposed to being clustered around a central power source, such as a river) which, in turn, created the opportunity to invent mass production. 2

Using the manufacturing of cars as an example, mass production turned “what had previously been a one-man job… into a 29-man worker operation (of repeated, routine tasks), reducing the overall work time by 34 percent” using “machinery…operated by unskilled workers”.3  Because the jobs were unskilled, people put out of work by mechanization in areas such as agriculture could be quickly trained and put to work on factory production lines.

The “economies of scale” created by mass production (where a lot of something could be produced for a greatly reduced cost per unit, making each unit much more affordable to many more people) necessitated the hiring of more highly skilled people to administer all the activities of the organization from purchasing parts, tracking production, selling directly to the public or through distributors, paying input costs and collecting money from purchasers.  More jobs were created by secondary businesses that were not previously needed, such as repair and maintenance services and parts manufacturers.  Organizations also began to realize that they could sell much more if they spent money on advertising, which created a whole group of jobs that never existed before.  And government jobs related to building and maintaining infrastructure (such as road, schools and hydroelectric grids), workplace safety, taxation and other forms of regulation also expanded, funded by both corporate and individual income taxes that increased as profits and incomes increased, respectively.

Mass production was the culminating miracle of the Industrial Revolution that drove the biggest societal changes and benefits because it made almost everyone better off.  Economist Carlota Perez describes what happened:

“ The main force pulling innovation then was the suburban home. (The efficiencies of mass production of cars made them affordable for ordinary people.) The automobile made it possible to build cheap houses on cheap land (situated) between the expensive cities and the isolated countryside. Hundreds of thousands of new homes signalled the direction of innovation towards comfort: from less work in the kitchen to more leisure in the living room, from refrigerated and frozen foods to disposable plastics, from vacuum cleaners to detergents and insecticides, from easy-to-clean flooring materials to synthetic fibres that needed no ironing and so on. This growing demand stimulated innovation in productivity that allowed salary increases and turned the workers into middle income consumers. That positive feedback loop was strengthened by mortgage insurance ….and consumer credit, which enabled monthly payments for homes, cars and appliances; then unemployment insurance avoided failing payments and old age pensions let people spend (most of their) salary with confidence.”4

Mass production created jobs for less skilled workers doing routine work in the factory as well as higher skilled workers who tended to have more education.  The education system that has been in place for the better part of a century was built to teach workers the skills they needed to participate and become prosperous in the industrial economy. 5

The “Combo” Revolution

The technological and economic revolution we are currently living through is in combination of first (printing press) information age and the machine-driven industrial age.    Today, the power of digital information is freeing productivity from the limitations of people doing routine tasks.

If you can give precise instructions to someone else on exactly what needs to be done, you can often write a precise computer program to do the same task. 6  We can see examples of how robots have replaced humans around us every day.   At the automatic teller machine (ATM) that replaced the bank teller, the self-serve gas pump that’s programmed to allow you get your gas and pay with your credit card within a few steps of your car, and just about any online store you’d care to name.  But it’s not just less skilled work that is susceptible to automation.

You might be surprised to learn that what has been traditionally viewed as very high skill work can also be automated – if that work can be broken down into a series of relatively precise tasks that are repeated each time a job needs to be done.  For example, a Radiologist is a doctor who analyses and evaluates the images in medical scans (such as X-rays, CT scans and mammograms) but spends comparatively little time interacting with patients.  For a human to become qualified to do the job of a Radiologist requires at least 13 years of post-secondary education and training. But, because a lot of what they do is highly defined and repetitive, a significant portion of a Radiologist’s work can be done by visual pattern recognition software.  And as more scans are performed with and transmitted by computerized devices, the easier it is becoming to automate the Radiologist’s job.

So how can we compete with computers?  The answer can be found in understanding our real advantages compared to computers and how to make the best use of our more distinctly human talents and abilities.

Old Brain Advantage

The brains of evolving humans spent hundreds of thousands of years learning the subtle and complex skills of recognizing and distinguishing between different sights and sounds (such as, the roar of a threatening animal, thunder and dark clouds signalling an approaching storm and distinguishing the cry of an animal from the cry of a child, as well as all the different combinations of voice tones and facial expressions that people use to express themselves) and what scientists call “fine motor skills” (e.g. how to use and coordinate our senses along with different parts of our bodies to accomplish a variety of tasks).  These skills gave us an edge in both interpreting and manipulating the world around us and put us on the road to forming the social bonds that helped us working together to form societies that increase our quality of life.  However, because (once learned) these abilities become almost second nature to us, we don’t tend to put much value on them.

The parts of the human brain associated with the “abstract reasoning that we associate with ‘higher thought’ like arithmetic or logic” developed relatively recently.  In today’s economy, we tend to value these newer brain abilities over the skills that were crucial to our survival and development for many millennia. That’s understandable because those abilities helped make the inventions that have increased our prosperity by leaps and bounds over the last few centuries possible.  Ironically, though, for computers to mimick these ‘higher thought’ abilities “often requires simpler software and less computer power to (duplicate) or even exceed human capabilities”7.

In an effort to predict which jobs will be done by robots in the future, MIT researchers Daron Acemoglu and David Autor use a two-by-two matrix with manual versus cognitive (thinking) skills on one axis and routine versus non-routine work on the other. 8  They found that routine work, regardless of how much  education or “brain power” might be required, was the most susceptible to automation while non-routine work of both types was much less susceptible.

 

Even with significant advances in automation (such as the self-driving car), non-routine work tends to require a kind of mental and/or physical dexterity that can be complex and expensive to break down into computer code.   For example, while a housekeeper might find tidying up to be one of the less challenging aspects of their job, it would be nightmarish for a robot.  Consider the skills required to pick-up a pair of sunglasses and put them away.   To a human, it’s a simple matter but a robot’s software would have to be programmed to recognize and anticipate all the different positions those sunglasses might be found in (lenses up, down, forward or back; arms open or closed; etc.) before picking they up, orienting them (including closing one, two or no arms) inserting them in the case, closing the case and putting it away (keeping in mind that not every household nor every person in every household keeps their sunglasses in the same place). 9  That’s a lot of programming to do something we do without giving it much thought.  Similarly, jobs requiring the use of flexibility, creativity, generalized problem-solving and complex communications are much more difficult to code and automate. 10

So part of our advantage lies in our ability to do what is not routine.  It also lies in our ability to engage in human interactions that people value.  Would you let a robot cut your hair, care for your young child while you were at work or insert your catheter (should you find yourself sick in hospital)?  You might allow a robot to be part of the process, if they added value.

Resistance is Futile – Make Friends with the Robots

Futurist Kevin Kelly provides this vision of the future of work: “You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.”11  This is because of the big leap in programming development that tends to be required to close the gap between routine and non-routine tasks.  Computers do well within their frame of reference but not so well outside of it.  Humans, on the other hand, can shift their frame of reference relatively easily.  For example, programming a digital system or robot to help intake non-urgent patients in an emergency room by asking routine questions covering common conditions is much more feasible and less costly than programming it to be prepared to evaluate all possible medical problems. 12

Currently, memorization and “reading, writing and arithmetic” remain the core of modern education.  Realizing that computers are better at almost all of these, our approach must be re-thought.  Memory plays a very important role in learning but rote memorization of facts has limited value.  More important to being able to add value while working with technology are skills around ideation, creativity, complex forms of communication and out-of-the-box pattern recognition.   We need to know enough to work well with technology while maintaining our ability to think critically and ask questions while adding value.

It also helps to shake off outdated biases when it comes to considering job options.  A recent Wall Street Journal article by Lauren Weber lamented the struggle “companies selling technology” were having filling “potentially lucrative sales jobs”. 13   Salespeople have long been easy prey for media bent on telling a negative story or other forms of sensationalism.   But the fact of the matter is that we depend on effective salespeople to save us time by helping us understand our options and connecting us with what we’re looking for.  When you sell something, you’re not selling the thing or the service, you’re selling a solution to a problem or the fulfilment of an aspiration, which are both very human needs.  Just about anyone can learn enough about a particular technology to understand the problems or aspirations it addresses.  The knack of sales is understanding people and finding creative ways to connect what you’re selling with how to it serves their need – something technology alone can’t do.  Technology, along with being part of products and services, can also help sales people find their ideal customers – which is a win-win for both parties and the economy as a whole.

Carlota Perez has studied the impact of the technological innovations of the last few centuries.  In her assessment, the way to prosperity going forward will involve, “the combination of ICT (information and communications technologies), green growth and full global development”.14

“Cheap energy…and cheap Asian labour… (have) enabled the old mass production model of frequent disposability” to continue long after the improvements in productivity from the industrial revolution technology peaked in the 1970s and 80s. The social trend of frequent disposability (newer is better) also helped to kick-start the current leaders in emerging ICT industries.  However, ”changes in patterns of consumption (what people buy) have occurred with each technological revolution” and “what history teaches us is that such changes take place, not by guilt or fear, but by desire and aspiration”. 15

Redefining and Redesigning Consumption

She expects consumption patterns to “shift from the old consumerism to healthy lives, with a high proportion of intangibles (such as services) in consumption, including more communication and creativity, more exercise and community activities, more education—both face-to-face and computer-based—more caring and sharing activities and so on, as well as significantly greater durability and recyclability of all tangible products. The “good green life” (will) be creative, healthy, pleasurable and comfortable…It (will) be what people aspire to”.16

For the economy and jobs, this means:  “Promoting a green economy is a solid route to jobs and growth today. It implies redesigning all products … bringing back maintenance (as well as) organising second, third and (so on) hand markets across the world on a massive scale, plus disassembly, recycling and other materials-saving processes.  All this would create jobs for the displaced manufacturing workers, while design, redesign and all the other creative industries and services would employ young university graduates.” 17

Economic growth is helped greatly by having more people with money to spend.  There is a highly under-tapped opportunity to create additional “demand” in the new economy by supporting the rise of income-earning opportunities for people in developing nations to give them more buying power.  ICT enables this in two ways.

Infrastructure Leapfrogging

First, through infrastructure leapfrogging.  The backbone of first our telephone and then our TV and internet systems was built on hundreds of thousands of miles of cable strung along polls and running underground.   Developing nations like many in Africa, never got around to laying all the cable necessary to bring services to most citizens simply because the money wasn’t there to either investment in the infrastructure or pay for what would have been expensive services.  But something interesting happened in the late 20th century.  Cheap, wireless services and inexpensive mobile devices suddenly meant that almost every African adult could afford a phone, effectively leapfrogging the need for a lot of expensive cable infrastructure.

Second, through making anyone, anywhere your potential employee.  According to the authors of the Second Machine Age 18, “Offshoring is often only a way station on the road to automation” but must that always be the case?  Automating a job where a human doesn’t add value can make sense but often, employing relatively low cost labour in combination with less costly technology can be the smarter, more adaptable approach.

Sama Source was founded on the principle that there are people living in extreme poverty who are capable of working in the digital economy.  Sama Source works with companies that make outsourcing decisions based on social impact as well as profit.19  Sama Source got started after its founder interviewed local entrepreneurs during a visit to Kenya and wound up hiring local youth to do data processing using the computers at a their local internet café.  All parties benefited, including the client who hired Sama Source to outsource that work.  People who are employed have more money to spend on goods and services.  But what would people in Kenya buy from people in Canada?  How about intangible services that can be delivered to many people over the internet at a low cost, such as education and professional development?   ICT doesn’t just enable jobs to leave developed economies like Canada’s, it also opens windows of opportunity for Canadians to use ICT to sell value-added services at affordable prices to people in developing countries.

To create sustainable career success in the emerging economy, keep these three things in mind:

  • View potential careers through the lens of how much they involve routine vs. non-routine work.
  • Pursue education that teaches both the subject matter and how to do your work in partnership with technology.
  • Think about how your interests, talents and education could be used to provide intangible services or as part of the design and production  of reuse-able and recyclable goods as part of a global marketplace.

That’s the best way to be prepared for the jobs that are coming into being right now and the new economy jobs that have yet to be invented.  Robot Counsellor, Big Data Wrangler, Tele-Surgeon, Systems Tangilizer and Wearable Technology Therapist are just a few examples of the job possibilities in the second machine age that you can learn more about at Careers2030.

*  Digitalization converts information into a stream of zeros and ones (also known as code) that is the “native language of computers”.  The information that is digitalized can be images, sound or instructions to do a task.  The information can come from software files or scans.  Videos are a combination of digitalized images and sound.   A work of embroidery can be scanned and converted into code that is sent to a computerized embroidery machine so that it can make another work of embroidery that is exactly the same.

 

1  From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, John Naughton, 2012, pg. 10

2  The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, 2014, pg.

3  THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYMENT: HOW SUSCEPTIBLE ARE JOBS TO COMPUTERISATION?” Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, September 17, 2013, pg. 9

4  The New Technological Revolution, Carlota Perez, Presentation at the Technology Frontiers Forum of The Economist, March 5, 2013

5 We Need Schools…Not Factories, Sugata Mitra, 02/27/2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sugata-mitra/2013-ted-prize_b_2767598.html

6  The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, 2014, pg. 185

7  The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, 2014, pg 139

8  “The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market”, David Autor, http://economics.mit.edu/files/5554 and “Skills, Tasks and Technologies: Implications for Employment and Earnings, Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, http://economics.mit.edu/files/5571

9  “Anything You Can Do, Robots Can Do Better”, Martin Ford, The Atlantic, February 14, 2011

10  Bresnahan 1999, Bresnahan, Timothy F., “Computerization and Wage Dispersion: An Analytical Reinterpretation,” Economic Journal, CIX (1999), 390– 415

11  “Better than Human:  Why Robots Will – and Must – Take Our Jobs”, Kevin Kelly, Wired, December 24, 2012

12  The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, 2014, pg 194

13  “Why It’s So Hard to Fill Sales Jobs: ‘Salesman’ Baggage Means Well-Paying Tech-Industry Positions Go Begging”, Lauren Weber, The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2015

14 “Why IT and the green economy are the real answer to the financial crisis”, Guest Post by Carola Perez, March 19, 2012,  http://greenallianceblog.org.uk/2012/03/19/why-it-and-the-green-economy-are-the-real-answer-to-the-financial-crisis/

15  ibid

16   A NEW AGE OF TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS, Carlota Perez, pg. 27

17   “Why IT and the green economy are the real answer to the financial crisis”, Guest Post by Carola Perez, March 19, 2012,  http://greenallianceblog.org.uk/2012/03/19/why-it-and-the-green-economy-are-the-real-answer-to-the-financial-crisis/

18  The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, 2014, pg 183

19  http://samagroup.co/, Special thanks to Marie Forleo for bringing Sama Source and it’s founder, Leila Janah to the author’s attention.