Talking Business

February 10, 2014

Robots’ rule will change work: How will society adapt?

The grasp of robots on our future, strengthening for decades, is about to tighten like a vise. Robots that think and move like people will inflict profound changes on our economy and society. People will get replaced by robots faster than the economy produces new jobs.

Here a robot, there a robot, everywhere a.

The grasp of robots on our future, strengthening for decades, is about to tighten like a vise. Robots that think and move like people will inflict profound changes on our economy and society.

Such robots and advanced software in the coming decades will erase millions of jobs, transform the whole idea of work, concentrate wealth in fewer hands, and severely test governments.

What brings on such thoughts

is a paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne

of Oxford University: “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation.”

The two experts on future technologies and robotics raise John Maynard Keynes’ 1933 warning: There could be a widespread lack of jobs because of “our discovery of means of economising the use of labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.”

People will get replaced by robots faster than the economy produces new jobs.

Frey and Osborne developed a mathematical formula to identify and rank which jobs are most susceptible. In a scary result, almost half of the 702 occupations tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — 47 percent — are at “high risk.”

The exactness of the ranking by the two academics would be almost laughable if the topic weren’t so serious.

Signal and Track Switch Repairers are ranked as the No. 543rd most likely occupation at risk with a 0.9 percent probability of replacement by robots or computers.

Gaming and Sports Book Writers and Runners are ranked No. 544 with a 0.91 percent probability.

The jobs at less risk generally require humans caring for other humans, balancing several factors and applying a considered judgment. That still leaves hundreds of occupations in danger from what will be a great leap forward in robot capability.

On tiny but cheap chips, robots will carry vast amounts of memory drawn on by ever-faster processors.

Robots have already demonstrated strong industrial might, but miniaturization, dexterity and motor control will allow the most-delicate tasks.

Add such fantastic hardware to advanced artificial intelligence software that uses “big data,” and you have robots and computers that learn and do nonroutine tasks.

They’ll start replacing low-end jobs you would have thought could never be done by a machine — hotel maids, for instance. And jobs done by managers and so-called knowledge workers that rely on pattern recognition, communicating with others and making decisions.

We’ve all heard that waiters will be replaced by tablet-based ordering systems, truck drivers by GPS-guided robots and computerized traffic-avoidance systems, and cooks by automated stoves. Amazon will have its drones.

But how about robot roofers crawling over your house? Or a robot that can do a manicure? Imagine going to a drugstore with a bar-coded prescription that’s filled by a machine?

Higher up the knowledge ladder, look at how many college teachers have already been sidelined by “moocs” — massive open online courses. And how many of you now use a phone fitness app in place of a personal trainer or aerobics instructor?

But couldn’t travel guides, real estate agents, financial advisers, actors, flight attendants, casino card dealers, car mechanics, librarians, mail carriers, meat cutters and even nuclear technicians all be replaced?

Editors, too?

A great dislocation is coming. Either people will be thrown out of fields they trained for and worked in for decades, or there simply won’t be enough jobs to keep everybody at work.

The economic effects are double-edged. The resulting business efficiencies could drive down prices, but they might have to fall anyway as middle-class jobs disappear and wages stagnate.

Or — and I think this is more likely — owners and stockholders will retain vast profits because of the lower cost of labor. And people smart enough to design, run and manipulate advanced robots and computers will become even more enriched. Such profit-making has already begun.

For regular workers who will be buffeted by such changes over a lifetime, an average education will no longer do. The education system will have to become more nimble and offer the latest skills and training to adults. Companies will have to do more educating themselves.

And we’re going to have to do more to help tide people over when technological change wipes out their career fields. People could do low-wage social make-work, and that might benefit society overall. But long-term joblessness will be even more the norm because retraining for new, harder-to-master careers will take longer, and be impossible for some.

And if the robot-run economy doesn’t produce enough jobs, governments are going to have to ask: Do we use the wealth created by robots to take care of the people the robots replace? Should we get more taxes out of the advantaged wealthy to provide a universal minimum income on which the rest of us can survive?

It you’re familiar with Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot” and its three rules, you know it includes this injunction: “A robot may not injure a human being.”

But what about taking your job?

Reading material

• “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

• “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation,” by Tyler Cowen. In what I think was one of the best books of 2013, Cowen points out it’s no longer good enough to get an average education and an average job. Wages have stagnated to the extent that if you’re not at the top, you’re at the bottom.

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