Are robots friend or foe? Their sinister role in stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terminator might have you wondering if modern advances in machine learning are actually in humanity’s best interest. Could the super-intelligent robots of the future turn the tide on their creators and take over the world?!
Maybe someday — but not yet. Artificial Intelligence is still in its infancy. The more pressing concern is whether robots will put us out of work.
Sign of the times
The World Economic Forum recently made lots of people nervous with a piece of research suggesting that over 5 million jobs could become automated by 2020 — a phenomenon WEF calls “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
How worried should you be? That depends on what you do for a living. Jobs most likely to be affected include administrative and manufacturing roles, construction, service, and maintenance. Bloomberg reports that jobs requiring “emotional intelligence” and creativity are less vulnerable, with healthcare and IT professionals in the best position to keep their jobs when the machines start creeping in.
The possible upside
It’s no secret that machines can be faster and more accurate than human workers. Machines don’t get tired, and they don’t need vacations or health care benefits — so a machine that replaces one or more human workers can decrease costs while increasing output. This equates to an economic lift for the company, and can actually serve to raise wages for workers who aren’t replaced. Another plus: working alongside robots has been shown to improve workers’ productivity. Economists compare industrial machines’ impact on the economy to that of the creation of the steam engine in the 1800s. Having the right robots in the right places could revolutionize the way many industries do business.
Some argue that increasing use of robots in the workforce could have unintended social consequences.
The existing gender gap may become even more pronounced as robots replace workers in administrative roles, and more women compete for fewer, lower-paying opportunities. Women are historically underrepresented in high-paying STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and overrepresented in administrative, clerical, and service roles that tend to pay less. (STEM jobs are predicted to be largely unaffected.)
The rise of working robots could also increase the gap between the “haves” and “have nots.” The “haves” have more financial resources to seek education and training to develop their professional skill set, and are therefore more likely to land in more lucrative, “high-skilled” jobs.
While the use of industrial robots has no effect on the employment of “high-skilled” workers, “low-skilled” or “medium-skilled” jobs are much more vulnerable to displacement. Once displaced, “low-skilled” workers might not have the resources to build the skill set that would ensure better job security — or the mobility to move elsewhere in search of work.
As one expert told Pew Research center in 2014, “The middle class will continue to shrink, and there will be a greater gap between the educated and tech-savvy ‘haves’ and the uneducated ‘have-nots’.” This could mean major increases in unemployment rates around the world.
Is it time to panic?
Nope. Current tech just isn’t there yet — and once it is, we can’t say for sure what the impact will be on employment. As “Father of the Internet” Vint Cerf put it, “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys, and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case.” We’ll have to wait and see.