If the prospect of finding a graduate job wasn’t daunting enough already, the media has caught onto a new threat for the global workforce. An Oxford University study published in 2013-fuelled public interest when it found that 47% of jobs in America were vulnerable to automation. This is job automation on a larger scale than ever before. It’s a reality, and it’s going to hit us sooner or later.
Technology has driven the most revolutionary changes in human lives – from the industrial revolution and the printing press, to the demise of horse-driven transport and our contemporary internet age. We’ve spent the last 1000 years reducing physical labour across all aspects of our lives. We’re extremely intelligent when it comes to making life easier. It’s a strange paradox that our greatest efforts are motivated by a desire to do less.
In the main, the automation of labour has been driven by our economic system, however. When technology replaces manual labour, this maximises efficiency that in theory enables people to further specialise their line of work. Standards of living rise, economies grow, the capitalist machine working its magic through the means of technology. (Recall how in a popular Roald Dahl story, Charlie Bucket’s dad, a hard-working toothpaste cap-screwer, gets made redundant before being employed to repair the machine that replaced him.)
A common argument against the new concern over job automation is to point out that this is nothing new. If there has been technological progress in automation, surely there has always been a turnover of jobs? While machines might become ever more manually dexterous, perhaps the tech startup boom of the last decade is evidence that new sectors are opening up for human workers.
47 PERCENT OF JOBS IN AMERICA WERE VULNERABLE TO AUTOMATION
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Firstly, a new report – “Technology At Work v2.0: The Future is Not What It Used to Be”, by the Oxford Martin School and Citigroup – has suggested that developing countries will be disproportionately hit by job automation. 69% of jobs in India were noted as at risk, 77% in China and 85% in Ethiopia. These jobs require minimal training. The latest manufacturing technology can pay for itself within 2 years, according to the Economist, luring investors away from the cheap labour in China and India for the first time. The Baxter robot, while ten times slower than its human counterparts, costs a hundredth of a minimum wage salary. Closer to home, think about how supermarkets are replacing cashiers with self-checkouts. As infuriating as they might be, it’s a simple matter of being cost effective. You just have to do the maths.
Additionally, in developing countries, there is less capital invested in old technologies. While richer countries may have built up dependency on an outdated transport industry, for example, self-driving taxis might take off more quickly in relatively young city elsewhere. The same goes for agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, administration and many other industries. It’s a sobering thought.
There is another development that is likely to affect us more profoundly. Whereas previous technology has replaced physical labour, the new frontier will replace jobs that use our minds. Machine learning, sophisticated decision-making programs and big data are all radically changing the way computer programs can approach problems. Tasks that previous required a human interpreter can now be automated, with the benefit of eliminating human error and bias in the process. From robotic surgery to self-driving cars to finance, a lot of jobs are on the cusp of changing hands – from human to machine. If the consequences of profit-driven physical automation are anything to go by, we can forecast a radically different future for our human workforce.
WE CAN FORECAST A RADICALLY DIFFERENT FUTURE
Fears over job automation have led to a growing movement in favour of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). To cope with a workforce that is not employable in the traditional sense, it is proposed that every citizen receives some money from the state regardless of their earned income. In theory, it saves people the ‘indignity’ of food stamps, eliminates the bureaucracy of benefits, and sets a basic standard of living for all. It preserves the capitalist system with a small dose of socialism. Critics are sceptical that this money could be raised in taxes, predicting some unscrupulous behaviour by the central banks. It’s conceivable. The fact that we will be forced to dramatically revise our work philosophy of productivity, however, is a near certainty.
Job automation is coming as it always has, but under a new, more threatening guise. Our challenge – as workers, students, citizens and individuals – is to be prepared.