Is the Era of Automation here?
AI & Robotics (AKA Automation) & Technological Unemployment
Should we be worried about the rise of Technological Unemployment? Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics have become hot topics, with different ideas about what the future of work will look like for the next gen. Despite the buzz surrounding it, AI has not progressed as quickly as we might think. There are many exciting aspects of automation and now is the time to explore how we’ve coped in the past, and how to prepare for large sectors of displaced workers?
When “Computer” Used to be a Job Title
It seems like every major industry today is talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics. Car companies like General Motors and Ford are busy investing millions into driverless cars while tech companies like Facebook and Google use AI to track spender habits for targeted marketing ads and user experience.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have continued to push the boundaries of technology as we previously knew it. Machines are taking over jobs previously held by people. With these incredible innovations people were phased out, with no real path forward.
This displacement of employees by tech is called Technological Unemployment. One classic example of this displacement is the computer. Computers haven’t always been what we know them to be today, in fact, they used to be humans.
In the ‘50s and ’60s, NASA employed (mainly) women with degrees or expertise in mathematics to calculate thousands of equations crucial to the space program, including sending man to the moon. These women were more powerful than the most powerful machine computer at the time.
As the focus shifted more towards automation, digital computers became smaller, more powerful, and much easier to use. NASA no longer required ‘human’ computers, so they were phased out. This displaced many people who no longer had a career path. When employees are replaced by AI, it can take a whole generation to correct a flooded market of displaced workers, creating more supply for little demand.
From Blue to White
While the advancement of AI comes with many benefits, there are some drawbacks. AI used to only eliminate the need for certain blue-collar jobs no one wanted to do ie. I think most of us are happy a machine can shovel coal. However, this tech has now started moved into white-collar jobs, ones we consider to be knowledge work. Once those jobs have been replaced, where will we go next?
People sometimes talk about AI in hushed tones, as though they are worried a robot might hear them and try to ensure their destruction. Companies act as though the flying car is right around the corner and that fully automated homes are being built as we speak.
In actuality, the truth is a bit more disappointing. The hype of AI has gotten much further ahead of the actual technology, and the world is still too complicated and nuanced for it to work in the way that people currently envision. Most AI machines have to be surrounded by big metal cages or plastic boxes to ensure a human’s safety, because the machine might not recognize a person’s presence.
That does not mean there are not some promising inventions trying to break out into the mainstream world. The popular TV show “The Jetsons” has inspired many to make the cartoon inventions a reality. 2018’s Consumers Electronic Show (CES) showed that voice commands are the way of the future in modern, smart-home tech. There were also robots that were capable of mapping and guarding your house as well as ones that would bring you the beer you left in the kitchen.
Though these new pieces of tech might sound encouraging, we have much further to go before AI will actually achieve what scientists and the general population hope for it to accomplish. In 2015, British company Moley Robotics unveiled what they called a robotic chef; two mechanical arms suspended over a countertop.
While the robotic chef is able to do everything perfectly, it did not come up with the recipe on its own and had to follow a prerecorded video instead of knowing the steps. Each ingredient also had to be pre-prepped so the robot arms could simply pick it up out of the cups and place it in the pan.
While this might seem cool, the robot isn’t as seamlessly integrated into your life as the company would like you to believe. Instead, there is a lot of prep work involved, which might have some reconsider if it’s even worth it.
Moving Forward in the Era of Automation
AI might not be up to our futuristic standards to take over the world, but that doesn’t mean that this technology isn’t still making an impact in our world every day.
Like the human computers at NASA, other jobs are at risk of being phased out due to machine inventions. Disruption is happening all around us, most frequently in regular algorithms more than anything. This impacts routine automation more than any other category, which makes it something we should pay attention to.
This has begun to happen on such a broad scale that at some point the market won’t be able to absorb all the free labor that will be made available through technological unemployment. While scientists and companies are more focused on phasing out certain jobs, they aren’t putting any effort into creating new ones.
The future of work IS at risk, since it can take a generation for people to catch up and recreate themselves. There will be people who must reinvent themselves and start down a new career path. At some point, this will cause the marketplace to flood with a surplus of talent.
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Tech disruption is happening and we need to find real-world solutions for worker displacement
Automation still has a way to go before we hit the ‘Jetsons’ age of automation
While Robotics and AI help us to automate difficult or ‘dirty’ jobs, it is now impacting knowledge work and creates Technological Unemployment