I have noted previously that the biggest threat to American workers by far is not outsourcing–it’s automation.
Those of you in my (advanced) age group can attest to the changes we’ve seen: we fill our own gas tanks, computers have decimated the ranks of secretaries, ATM’s and remote deposits via our phones have made visiting the bank unnecessary–and on and on.
Some of the things we’ve automated have actually created new jobs. Most have not, however, and the guy who used to fill your gas tank may not have the skillset needed to service ATM’s.
I wrote a lot about the likely consequences of automation in my last book, and I was prompted to revisit that research when I came across an article in Time Magazine about a robot invented to help us cope with the current pandemic.
Conor McGinn is a roboticist and professor at Trinity College Dublin. McGinn and his colleagues at Trinity’s Robotics and Innovation Lab focus on figuring out how robots can best assist aging individuals in care homes.
The signature product from the lab and its spinoff company, Akara Robotics, is Stevie, a 4-foot 7-inch tall social robot whose primary function is alleviating loneliness. In trials in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, the robot has been programmed to tell stories, call bingo numbers, lead sing-alongs, and other morale- and community-building exercises in a group care setting.
Its team of engineers have also worked closely with care home staff to understand what additional functions could be added to the robot to boost patient safety. In July 2019, well before the first reports of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, the team began exploring whether Stevie might be able to ward off infections too.
After a few false starts–viola!
The team began drawing up plans for a new robot that would combine the navigational features they’d designed for Stevie with a UV-C light. The robot wouldn’t have any anthropomorphic features, but would be designed to work alongside humans. They would call this one Violet…
Violet is one of many robots deployed or soon to be deployed on the front lines of the global outbreak, navigating hospitals and assisting health workers and patients with a very low risk of spreading the infection.
According to the article, new generations of robots are being developed to “navigate high-risk areas and continually work to sterilize all high-touch surfaces.”
Sounds great. But then…..
A study by Ball State University found that just since 2000, nine out of ten manufacturing workers have been replaced by automation.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center asked approximately 1900 experts to opine on the impact of emerging technologies on employment; half of those questioned predicted the displacement of significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers by robots and digital agents. Many also expressed concern over the likely consequences of that quantity of job losses, predicting that displacements will lead to even larger increases in income inequality, masses of people who are unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.
An analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that ten percent of the jobs in advanced economies will be automated, while scholars at Oxford University forecast that 50% of American jobs are at risk. Obviously, no one can say with confidence how many jobs will be lost, or which workers will sustain those losses, but technologies now in development threaten millions.
Think about this: There are 3.5 million professional truckdrivers in the United States, and another 1.7 million Americans drive taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery vans for a living. Self-driving cars, which are currently being road-tested, could put them all in the ranks of the unemployed.
Think skilled workers are immune? The Brookings Institution’s Tech Tank tells us that between 2011 and 2017, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders with 200 coding engineers. Even medical professionals are at risk: in 2017, Entilic, a medical start-up, reported that its AI algorithm “outperformed four radiologists in detecting and classifying lung modules as either benign or malignant,”
In 2016, the World Economic Forum projected a total loss of 7.1 million jobs to automation, including jobs in advertising, public relations, broadcasting, law, financial services and health care.
It isn’t just the pandemic that is threatening to upend our world–but among its other consequences, the pandemic may hasten the process.