Source – pcmag.com, By Evan Dashevsky
– Economists of the past century have, for the most part, rejected the notion that technological advancement destroys the need for human labor. Or, if there was to be any effect on the labor force, they’ve claimed it would only be beneficial.
Back in the 1930s, for example, the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancements would slice the work week down to 15 hours and society would be forced to contend with an overabundance of leisure time. (Heh.)
Meanwhile, the pessimists who warned of impending “technological unemployment” were dismissed as reactive Luddites. And, as it turns out, this intra-academic derision has been mostly validated by history. Time and time again, the industrial era has demonstrated that technology only evolves the workforce, it doesn’t replace it.
While many jobs have indeed been rendered obsolete over the decades (wherest thou, o’ carriage drivers, milkmen, telephone operators?), wholly new professions have risen to replace them (greetings, mechanics, pilots, and app developers!)
But just because this pattern of obsolescence and adaption has been the way of things for the past century, there’s no guarantee that it will be the pattern for the next.
Consider that six years after the great global financial train wreck, the United States is still saddled with a sluggish job market which has yet to really kick back into pre-recession gear. Is it possible that technology—specifically A.I. and robotics—has replaced so many jobs so quickly that we have lurched over some tipping point?
Some are starting to wonder if this is indeed the case.
In a 2011 essay entitled “Are Jobs Obsolete?,” Present Shock author Douglas Rushkoff described what he saw as a coming paradigm shift:
New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures — from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.
We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.
Economists are now beginning to re-visit, or at least contemplate the idea that we are headed for an employment catastrophe directly attributable to the advance of technology. (Though, we should note that it would not necessarily be a catastrophe; it might simply represent a huge societal change. If automation truly did take over much of the workforce, then goods and services would theoretically become cheaper, thus lessoning the need to work.)
A recent Oxford University study (PDF) predicted that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are under threat to be replaced by automation. And, despite what this may conjure in the popular imagination, technology does not just threaten manufacturing jobs or those at the lower-wage end of the spectrum.
While the Oxford study indeed found that “wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerization,” disruptive changes may be experienced all along the workforce. Consider all the high-paying, degree-necessitated jobs that technology has disrupted (and in some cases, dismantled) over the past decade within the publishing, music, retail, and service industries. Hell, a non-sentient algorithm was recently appointed to the board of directors of a venture capital firm. Even we humble blogger-journalists are not immune!
The aforementioned Oxford study attempted to quantify the vulnerability of 702 positions described in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network (O*NET) database. O*NET includes a detailed description of the tasks necessary to hundreds of different types of jobs. The researchers compared each position’s tasks to the predicted future ability of technologies (specifically in the fields of “Machine Learning” and “Machine Robotics”).
The researchers then quantified the “probability of computerization” of various professions using a Gaussian process. If that last bit doesn’t mean much to you, you are not alone, but just know that the resulting probability scale runs from 0 to 1. The closer the number is to 0 (i.e., the smaller the number), the less likely the job will be to replaced by Rosie the Robot. Conversely, the closer the number is to 1, the more likely it is not to exist in the near future.
Click through to the next page for the 20 positions the study believes are least likely to be automated. As it turns out, the position of recreational therapist (go figure) is the safest of all.
20 That Are Safe…For Now
Most Secure Positions (starting with the most secure)
1. Recreational Therapists 0.0028
2. First-Line Supervisors of Mechanics, Installers, and Repairers 0.003
3. Emergency Management Directors 0.003
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers 0.0031
5. Audiologists 0.0033
6. Occupational Therapists 0.0035
7. Orthotists and Prosthetists 0.0035
8. Healthcare Social Workers 0.0035
9. Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons 0.0036
10. First-Line Supervisors of Fire Fighting and Prevention Workers 0.0036
11. Dietitians and Nutritionists 0.0039
12. Lodging Managers 0.0039
13. Choreographers 0.004
14. Sales Engineers 0.0041
15. Physicians and Surgeons 0.0042
16. Instructional Coordinators 0.0042
17. Psychologists, All Other 0.0043
18. First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives 0.0044
19. Dentists, General 0.0044
20. Elementary School Teachers, Except Special Education .0044
If there’s any pattern evolving, I suppose that many of these positions depend on personal interaction and work that has a direct impact on another human being. The researchers also included factors such as high levels of dexterity (say, the kind needed by a heart surgeon as opposed to that needed to screw in a lightbulb) and the ability to persuade, negotiate, and think creatively (something that is way off for even the most advanced software).
20 Jobs Likely to Be Replaced by Robots
1. Tellers 0.98
2. Umpires, Referees, and Other Sports Officials 0.98
3. Insurance Appraisers, Auto Damage 0.98
4. Loan Officers 0.98
5. Order Clerks 0.98
6. Brokerage Clerks 0.98
7. Insurance Claims and Policy Processing Clerks 0.98
8. Timing Device Assemblers and Adjusters 0.98
9. Data Entry Keyers 0.99
10. Library Technicians 0.99
11. New Accounts Clerks 0.99
12. Photographic Process Workers and Processing Machine Operators 0.99
13. Tax Preparers 0.99
14. Cargo and Freight Agents 0.99
15. Watch Repairers 0.99
16. Insurance Underwriters 0.99
17. Mathematical Technicians 0.99
18. Sewers, Hand 0.99
19. Title Examiners, Abstractors, and Searchers 0.99
20. Telemarketers 0.99
If there’s a pattern to be found in these positions, these are perhaps all jobs that are repetitive in nature and involve very little real-time decision making. Sorry telemarketers, it seems that a robot can be just as effective at your job and is willing to harass people at home for far cheaper.
Peter Diamandis, X Prize Foundation CEO and Planetary Resources co-founder opined to the Wall Street Journal that the world is drifting inevitably towards socialism. The self-proclaimed proud capitalist and libertarian described this creeping socialism not as a threat to free markets, but rather as the natural benevolent outcome of technological evolution.
“It’s quite possible that people won’t need jobs the way they do now. As the price of technology falls, so will the cost of living,” he commented, “[thus] enabling the world to meet the basic needs of all people within 30 years.” He went on to predict that the trends that have lead to a doubling of life expectancy and tripling of income in recent generations will inevitably create “fundamental changes in society in the next 20 or 30 years.”
Perhaps work will one day evolve into something that is optional rather than inevitable. While it’s very difficult to say for sure how the world—let alone, the economy—will play itself out, we can say that things are moving very fast and will be very different than they are today.
I, for one, am still holding out for that 15-hour work week.