Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and machine learning are automating jobs and bringing sweeping societal change. While this is not a sudden shift, the impact of this disruption is spreading to roles once considered “safe” from automation. We’re seeing automation move from the auto manufacturer’s floor to the legal office, the writer’s desk, the surgeon’s table and beyond.
The Luddite Fallacy
The thought of job automation is a worrying thought for many people. The idea of losing a job to a computer or robot is obviously unsettling. But, while the Luddites (which I wrote about here) saw an impact on their livelihoods long-term, automation generally created greater wealth and more jobs. This is commonly referred to as the ‘Luddite Fallacy’—the belief that the technological disruption of employment is unique to the present, and will fracture society as we know it. Yet, time and again we see that while a process may be turned over to machines, humans still play a large, and often more satisfying role.
Automation-ready Industry Sectors
It’s undeniable that automation and AI are making their way into our daily lives. Amazon Go is eliminating the need for cashiers, and self-driving vehicles won’t need truckers and cab drivers at their wheels. Artificial intelligence is beginning to diagnose disease, perform surgery, and even write film trailers.
On the face of it, the sectors most affected by automation are manufacturing, wholesale and retail, and transport and storage. Examples of retail exodus are not hard to find; in the U.S., h.h.gregg, Rue21, and JC Penny all announced plans to close a total of 758 stores collectively. In the first half of 2016, the U.K saw more than 15 shop closures a day across the country, and the number of new openings has now fallen to the lowest level in five years, according to a report that highlights the pressure on the retail sector.
In retail labor, Amazon has had a huge impact, with warehouse automation all but replacing traditional shipping and packing work that used to be carried out by people. On a typical Amazon order, employees will spend about a minute total taking an item off the shelf, then boxing and shipping it. The rest of the work is done by robots and automated systems.
But nuanced human interactions are much harder processes to codify. While managing a machine via software is the norm, automating the deeper “thinking” tasks is much more complex, and until now something that could really only be managed by humans.
But technology is now affecting those roles once considered “safe” from automation. The legal profession, once heavy with tradition and a lifetime of experience, is slated for transformation via AI and eDiscovery platforms that can review and create contracts, raise red flags to spot potential fraud and other misconduct, do legal research, and perform due diligence before corporate acquisitions—all tasks that are typically performed by flesh-and-blood attorneys.
Automation Touches Every Role
From the factory floor to the Boardroom, no position will be untouched by automation. Research suggests, “even the highest-paid occupations in the economy, such as financial managers, physicians and senior executives, including CEOs, have a significant amount of activity that can be automated.”
The trend towards automation is one that reaches worldwide. In the U.K., up to 30% of existing jobs are susceptible to automation from robotics and AI by the early 2030s. In the U.S., that number is 38%, in Germany 35%, and in Japan 21%.
Life in the Automated World
Working life will change radically as we embark on the fourth industrial revolution. The world is ablaze with new ways to automate, and while it is hard to embrace change when it is perceived to threaten your livelihood, perception is not necessarily reality.
I believe that job creation—and more specifically interesting job creation—is as much an outcome of automation as job elimination. The challenge is to leverage new automation to improve our way of life—not just eliminate jobs. Technology will radically change the sort of roles we all do—it always has—but we have the opportunity to embrace the areas of technology that can take our abilities from human to superhuman.
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