Robots are coming for our jobs—and that may be a good thing

We just came back from a week at an idyllic beach resort in Malaysia. Not having to wear shoes for a week felt liberating. Internet was non-existent in most parts of the island and sketchy at best at upmarket resorts. Even though it was utopia for a week, we could not wait to get back on the grid.

Technology is a double-edged sword. It can let you work remotely but it can also cause a dependency on it – much like an addiction. Our time on the beach paradise would have been more enjoyable if we had viable Internet to complete work we’d brought along on our little getaway. Without wifi, we ended up fretting over deadlines, and the relief we felt after checking into a swankier hotel with sketchy Internet was more than palpable.

(Featured Image by Franz Steiner, via Frank Ambriz’s On My Level blog)

According to statistical website Internet Live Stats, there are close to 3.5 billion Internet users in the world – and counting. That’s a 40 percent penetration in the world, up from one percent just two decades ago. The highest number of Internet users in the world is in China, followed by India and the United States. Malaysia, at the 30th spot, has 21 million users. Singapore is at 73rd position with only 4.6 million users. What’s interesting is that only about 50 percent of people in China have access to the Internet while Singapore has a penetration of 82 percent. On the surface, it just means not everyone is checking his Facebook every five minutes—right?

Unfortunately, the digital divide harbours a more sinister trend. In a 2014 report, technology watchdog, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review told of an ‘income chasm’ in Silicon Valley. “The anger in Northern California and elsewhere in the United States springs from an obvious reality: the rich are getting richer while many other people are struggling,” said the article. It doesn’t help that Silicon Valley is compounding the problem by creating software that will displace middle-class jobs.

Fellow at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance and at Singularity University Vivek Wadhwa wonders about a future where “a few very rich people leave the rest of us hopelessly behind”.


(Photo: Dina Rudick, BostonGlobe)

Digital divide farther separates rich from poor

And the problem is set to get even greater. Findings by research company Pew Research Center in 2014 said “robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance”.

Half of the respondents on the survey see “a future where robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers – with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order”.

But the centre cautioned the research is ‘not a representative survey’ as it came from an “opt-in” response from experts, identified by Pew, who have contributed and spoken about the future of the Internet.

Economist at MIT, Erik Brynjolfsson tells technology website TechRepublic, by CBS interactive, his vision of a dystopian future where “computers entrench the power of the wealthy elite and push the majority into poverty. A world where technology does not lift all boats but sucks under all but the biggest ships”. According to a Business Insider report, the American White House estimates 80 percent of low wage jobs will be replaced by automation. The trend was pulled from a 2016 study by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and mentioned in President Obama’s February economic report to Congress.

The study showed 83 percent of jobs that paid under US$20 per hour were at risk while jobs that paid between US$20 to US$40 and more than US$40 per hour were at 31 percent and four percent risk respectively. The CEA report recommends ‘robust training and education to ensure displaced workers are able to transition quickly and smoothly into new jobs’.


(Photo: Shutterstock via The Conversation)

AI will take away high-paying jobs too

Unfortunately, it is not just low paying jobs that are at risk. Daniel Nadler, founder of automated data analysis software Kensho, portends a more worrying future. Automated software will make up to 50 percent of jobs in the finance industry redundant, said Nadler to The New York Times. The move was gradual; replacing lower-paid clerks with electronic stock tickers and trading tickets. It has moved on to research and analysis today and the next wave will affect jobs that are client facing. “Soon, sophisticated interfaces will mean that clients no longer feel that need or even want to work through a human being,” said Nadler.

Long before Nadler and Brynjolfsson, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Center Nils J. Nilsson had warned of this future in his 1984 paper, ‘Artificial Intelligence, Employment and Income’ published by non-profit research and development (R&D) organisation SRI International. Nilsson said: “Artificial Intelligence and other developments in computer science are giving birth to a dramatically different class of machines—machines that can perform tasks requiring reasoning, judgment, and perception that previously could be done by humans.”

Jobs at risk from this displacement include taxi drivers and truck drivers, as cars turn driverless, as well as legal writing. Occupations that require persuading and the human touch, such as nursing, are likely to be safe, according to a 2013 Oxford University study on how susceptible human jobs are to computerisation.


(Photo: European CEO)

Everybody wins – or not?

It seems the big winner of this job displacement will be software companies, and their designers. As more jobs are lost to technology, the digital divide will widen the income gap grows. One way to ensure a livelihood for the lower wage group is for governments to consider an unconditional basic income – even if it’s until the worker is retrained for jobs that aren’t taken by robots, said Singapore’s Straits Times.

Countries such as Brazil, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, India and Switzerland are considering a universal basic income where the government will provide citizens with a basic income (for example, Finland will give its citizens between €500 and €700) per month to help with their livelihood.

Before we start picketing software companies, the future is not all doom and gloom. The Pew study also quoted optimists who think technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025’. Vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google Vint Cerf said: “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case. Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices.”

And losing menial jobs to robots would not be a total loss. In Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe, humans are freed from mundane jobs so that they can explore the universe and make love to aliens. Besides, who would choose to work on data sheets over running barefoot on a sandy beach?

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