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Robots Will Take Your Job, But First They’ll Be Your Annoying Co-Worker

The job ad of 2025: Experience in human-machine interactions required.

Robots Will Take Your Job, But First They’ll Be Your Annoying Co-Worker
[Top Photo: Javier Larrea/Getty Images]

What you’ve heard about robots killing jobs is probably overblown, and you shouldn’t be preparing for a future where you report to a machine.

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At least, that’s if you listen to a new report for the market research firm Forrester Research. It calls out the “scaremongers” peddling this line of thinking, saying their “analyses are based on flawed assumptions.”

“While many observers dread a drastic contraction in overall employment from robots–and a concomitant increase in social tensions–Forrester predicts a more nuanced future,” it goes on, sounding nuanced.

Here’s the problem: Forrester makes a good case for why robots (and other forms of automation) are going to destroy jobs and doesn’t give us any reasons to think that’s not actually something to be scared about. It says 22.7 million jobs will be lost by 2025, or 16% of the workforce. And, while automation will create 13.6 million jobs (in software, engineering, design, maintenance, support and training), it believes the net effect will be negative: a loss of 9.1 million jobs in ten years, or 7% of the total.

Yes, a net loss of 9.1 million jobs in the next decade.

The report offers an excellent survey of all the things that computers will soon be doing, from routine tasks like moving Amazon deliveries around warehouses, to service roles like directing customers around a Lowe’s store. And it shows how some jobs are less at risk because they involve higher-level human capabilities, like aesthetic judgment and white-glove service.

Forrester expects the biggest changes will involve jobs that change, rather than disappear. For example, automation will require managers to create “new workflows, processes, and metrics” and require doctors to turn to AI to diagnose problems and prescribe treatments. These technologies will be enabling, not disabling, it says. At the same time, there will be plenty of roles working alongside robots. This is a typical ad it expects in 2025: “Facility with human-machine interactions required. Certifications preferred. Must be well versed in both artificial intelligence and physical robotic systems.”

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But, as we say, Forrester’s case against the scaremongers isn’t particularly convincing. It says the “worst-case scenarios play off of cultural and psychological anxieties”–which is maybe true, but isn’t an argument for why we’re wrong to be anxious. It says “job loss numbers make better headlines than job creation estimates”–which is arguable. I bet someone could write a post saying that robots create lots of jobs and people would read it. And, it says “rebellion and backlash against automation have a long history,” when in fact technology has been a net job creator over time. Again, that is also true, but not an argument for why automation won’t be different this time. Indeed, there are moments in history when technology really does make a difference, as Forrester is constantly telling us.

Forrester wants to present itself as a calmer, more objective sort of futurist. But the message of its report is pretty clear: technology is going to destroy more jobs than it’s going to create. Yes, that’s something that should scare us.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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