Study: Smart Robots Are Coming For (Some Of) Our Jobs

An incisive new study from Pew Internet Research takes a look at how robots and artificial intelligence will shape our future.

A new study by Pew Internet Research takes a hard look at how innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence will impact the future of work. To reach their conclusions, Pew researchers invited 12,000 experts (academics, researchers, technologists, and the like) to answer two basic questions:

  • Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?
  • To what degree will AI and robotics be parts of the ordinary landscape of the general population by 2025?

Close to 1,900 experts responded. About half (48%) of the people queried envision a future in which machines have displaced both blue- and white-collar jobs. It won't be so dissimilar from the fundamental shift we saw in manufacturing, in which fewer (human) bosses oversaw automated assembly lines. What careers are most in danger? X-ray technicians, legal clerks, and news writer jobs were among those mentioned--essentially anything that requires routine decision-making is in danger of becoming automated. (The Associated Press, for example, is already experimenting with having machines write short business stories.) Careers requiring creativity, empathy, critical thinking, and judgment calls, on the other hand, were thought to be safer from being taken by machines.

Meanwhile, the other 52% of experts surveyed speculate while that many of the jobs will be "substantially taken over by robots," humans won't be displaced outright. Rather, many people will be funneled into new job categories that don't quite exist yet. "Some respondents argued that we have always come up with new types of work," Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew, tells Fast Company. "Twenty years ago, no one would have said that Search Engine Optimizer or App Developer would have been major job categories."

Some worry that over the next 10 years, we'll see a large number of middle class jobs disappear, widening the economic gap between the rich and the poor. The shift could be dramatic. As artificial intelligence becomes less artificial, they argue, the worry is that jobs that earn a decent living wage (say, customer service representatives, for example) will no longer be available, putting lots and lots of people out of work, possibly without the requisite skill set to forge new careers for themselves.

How do we avoid this? One revealing thread suggested by experts argues that the responsibility will fall on businesses to protect their employees. "There is a relentless march on the part of commercial interests (businesses) to increase productivity so if the technical advances are reliable and have a positive ROI," writes survey respondent Glenn Edens, a director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems at PARC, which is owned by Xerox. "Ultimately we need a broad and large base of employed population, otherwise there will be no one to pay for all of this new world."

It's a scary chicken-and-egg scenario. Regardless, though, both sides agree that policy makers will play a vital role in ensuring that the workforce is prepared for our machine-driven future. "We can, in theory, implement policies that will smooth out this transition," says Smith. "Guaranteed minimum income, a shortened work week, etc., were among the suggestions offered." Whether they are prepared to do that or not remains to be seen.

All told, the inevitability of automation in the workplace isn't an entirely grim prospect. Leaving boring, repetitive tasks to machines could, in fact, make for a cheerier workforce, and allow people to spend more time doing what they actually want to do--whether that's, say, gardening at home, or handcrafting goods to sell on Etsy. We're seeing hints of that already today.

"[Some argue] that we can use automation to take away the day-to-day drudgery in our lives, and allow people to be more creative, spend more time with their families, and otherwise do what they enjoy doing, rather than trudging off to a nine-to-five job that they hate," says Smith. "Even if there are less jobs in the future, it's still a win for society."

[Photo by John Lund, Blend Images, Corbis]

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