Jobs Versus Robots (The Robotial Revolution)

There is a recent trend of various commentators to express their opinion about what jobs robots will take.  These commentaries are mostly trifles as they can only speak with some authority about the jobs already being done by robots but the speculation in pieces such as the The 5 Jobs Robots Will Take Last by Shelly Palmer is laughable at best and insidious at worst.  The pieces show a deep lack of understanding of Artificial Intelligence and the mechanical and technical reliability of machines that the state-of-art can manufacture cheaply and reliably.  Not to mention that these robots need maintenance to a degree that the effort to keep it in service does not exceed the labour it is replacing.  The owner of any household electronic appliance knows intuitively that the machines being built today are a very long way away from being autonomous in any way.  They require constant attention and oversight by their owners and users.  How we make the leap from phones and computers that breakdown and fail constantly to an ultra-complex robot that is faultless seems left to the Science Fiction or perhaps Fantasy writers to tell us. Robots capable of replacing any job Mr Palmer can think of except teachers (have you not heard of Online Learning and MOOCs) and politicians (have a look at Polly-Web ) and a couple of other random roles (including Judges) do not exist and will not exist for may years and decades to come.

Yes there are very successful implementations of robots in manufacturing (you can go as far back as mechanical Weaving machines for great examples). These indeed, dramatically change the employment landscape in the relevant niches but to predict wholesale replacement of every job except for 5 is ridiculous and just not additive to the debate.  It glosses over the economic and regulatory implications as well as taking a tabloid journalism approach to complex Mechantronic Engineering, Software Engineering, Machine Learning, Mobile Power Source Engineering and a dozen other key scientific breakthroughs that have not yet happened.

What Mr Palmer fails to grasp is that the transition to robots being prevalent in the everyday will be fractal and chaotic with small changes in one area have big effects in other areas and vice versa.  Predicting which jobs will come and which will go without taking into account the already rapidly changing job landscape is meaningless. With the rise of phenomena like the Gig Economy already clearly impacting workers today, the vision of some far-off dystopian, robot ravaged, jobs landscape is really nothing more than thinly veiled adaptation of James Cameron’s Terminator series (and far less entertaining).

 

Postscript

A recently published report from the McKinsey Global Institute think tank opines that less than 5% of jobs will be completely replace by robots and the effect will be most felt in jobs that rely heavily on manual labour (akin to the industrial revolution).  The report goes on to say that jobs will be created for workers with technology skills in the industries that suffer job displacement but possibly at a slower pace than the rate of job reduction.

In order to ensure that the impact of robots in the employment sphere is managed appropriately the answer is improved education, which is no revelation because there is no problem on earth that cannot be solved by improvements to education.  Except of course for the problem of continuing to ensure that wealth is concentrated in the fewest hands of the privileged.  So it will yet to be seen if the “Robotial Revolution” will be used by the established elite as another means to enrich themselves at the expense of the vast majority of the world population.

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