Technology has long shaped the U.S. labor force, from agricultural technology in farming to streamlining medical services through electronic health records and data mining. These advancements have historically led to an increase in jobs, but with the rapid evolution of technological capabilities we’re seeing today at the hand of computer scientists and software engineers, it’s possible we’re facing a looming threat of tech-powered unemployment.
This could result in a steady decline in jobs because of technology for the first time, and—undoubtedly even more unsettling or promising, depending on your worldview—a permanent one.
The top minds in America have always identified the double-edged sword present in this discussion. Consider the polarizing views that surfaced in the midst of the Great Depression: While economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancements could afford us a leisurely 15-hour work week by 2030, President Herbert Hoover received a letter from the mayor of Palo Alto, CA, urging him to consider curbing the impact of the “Frankenstein monster” of industrial technology lest it devour our civilization.
Sound familiar? This dichotomy bears a striking resemblance to the conversations taking place today. While many are continually pushing for a rapid increase in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, prominent scientists and engineers such as Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking have strongly warned against the dangers AI could pose if not restricted properly.
So, which is it? Will the implementation of AI in the U.S. workforce help us or hurt us? Read on to uncover the facts supporting both sides of this multifaceted argument.
Robots in the workforce: The basics
The words, “artificial intelligence” are cited to have first appeared back in 1956 in association with the computer scientist who’s since been dubbed the “Father of AI,” John McCarthy. Fast forward to the 1980s, and while much conceptual progress had been made on the AI front, very few practical successes had been achieved—the gap between theory and practice had yet to be bridged.
The mid-90s was when our technological advancements began to catch up to the conceptual groundwork that had been paved. The rapid growth of the internet meant that massive amounts of data were now widely available, engineers had access to technology that could better enable them to build robots and electronic storage of data opened the door for systems that could mine and learn from the progress that had already been made.
Today, very few will argue the assertion that we are—at a global scale—moving toward automated workplaces. Consider the following findings from several recent studies:
- 47 percent of American jobs will be automated within the next 20 years, according to a 2013 study from the University of Oxford.1
- 40 percent of Canadian jobs will be replaced by machines within 10 to 20 years, according to a 2016 study from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.2
- An expected 850,000 jobs in the U.K. will be automated by 2030, according to a 2016–17 study from the University of Oxford.3
- 56 percent of all jobs in Southeast Asia are at a high risk for automation, according to a 2016 report from the International Labor Organization. 4
Some reports, however, dispute these claims. A study from the McKinsey Global Institute, for example, predicts that this transition to an automated workforce will happen much more slowly than has been asserted.5 Conversely, the study suggests just five percent of jobs have the potential to be entirely automated with the technological capabilities that are currently demonstrated. It is their estimation that the soonest that half of the world’s jobs could be forfeited to automation would be 2055.
Timeline disputes aside, all reports concede to the fact that workplace automation is in our future. With that in mind, what are the potential benefits and deficits of such a shift?
The case against AI in the workforce
The fear of an AI takeover in the American workforce (and beyond) is nothing new. While there’s long been hope for the potential of machines freeing us from the toil of menial work, it’s also true that a certain amount of anxiety surrounds the possibility that technological job displacement could lead to unskilled and unemployed workers who can no longer afford life’s necessities—and big, hungry mobs of people usually don’t lead to good things.
As capabilities of machines continue to grow aggressively and our own human capabilities remain the same, many rightfully wonder if any job is truly safe. But as far as financial detriment is concerned, it’s equally important to consider the fact that computer capabilities continue to multiply while the price of such computing is becoming more and more affordable. This could benefit the wealth of the national economy at large.
But the concern isn’t just about finances—the social impact of an increasingly jobless society is also at the forefront of the concerns of many scientists and researchers. “When jobs go away, the cultural cohesion of a place is destroyed,” professor of labor studies John Russo told The Atlantic. That is to say, saving work in general may be of greater importance than preserving any particular job, as industriousness has been a cornerstone of the American economy since its infancy.
The case for AI in the workforce
The flip side of this conversation is one that is discussed far less often. Sure, we all know the general benefits of robots in the workforce—they’re smarter, more efficient and cheaper than nearly any human worker. But new information has emerged in the midst of the frenzied fear of AI forcing us all out of work: Is it possible that the world actually has too much work and not enough people to complete it all?
It has been suggested that the U.S. economy is seeing a recession in productivity. Within our current economy, unemployment is low and wages are steadily increasing—two elements we haven’t seen much of in the last 40 years. It’s also true that corporate investment in information technology and software is lower than it’s ever been on record. These are some of the main points that bolster the argument that we are actually facing a need for an increased use of AI in our current workforce.
Those in this camp will often cite examples reminiscent of the following: Even though the number of ATMs grew by a factor of ten between 1990 and 2010, the number of job openings for bank tellers continued to see growth. It is suggested that this is a pattern that reaches across industries. Consider a couple more examples: Paralegal jobs have grown despite the increased use of electronic discovery software used in lawsuits, and travel agent positions have also seen growth despite the upsweep in do-it-all travel websites.
Explore the potential of artificial intelligence
With respected opinions on both sides of the fence, what are we to believe? Are we liberated by or enslaved to this workforce technology? Will the benefits outweigh the risks, or vice versa?
The truth is, predicting the future of any workforce is a daunting and near impossible task. But amidst the controversy, it’s undoubtedly true that AI has the potential to reap continued benefits within our society as a whole. Even those warning against potential threats, such as Hawking and Musk, are not suggesting we stop pursuing AI and automation. Rather, they are suggesting we implement regulations that will ensure the development of AI is beneficial to humanity, not harmful.
What do you think?
As you piece through your own opinions on the matter the matter of automation, you may find it helpful to review the many ways computer science has resulted in positive outcomes in our society. Learn more by visiting our article, “6 Surprising Ways Computer Science Benefits Society.”
1University of Oxford, Oxford Martin School, The Future of Employment, [data accessed May 15, 2018] https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/future-of-employment.pdf
2Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, The Talented Mr. Robot: The Impact of Automation on Canada’s Workforce, [data accessed May 15, 2018] http://brookfieldinstitute.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/TalentedMrRobot_BIIE-1.pdf
3Deloitte, The State of the State 2016-17: Brexit and Business of Government, [data accessed May 15, 2018] https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/public-sector/deloitte-uk-state-of-the-state-2016-report.pdf
4International Labour Organization, Bureau for Employers’ Activities, ASEAN in Transformation: The Future of Jobs at Risk of Automation, [data accessed May 15, 2018] http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_dialogue/---act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_579554.pdf
5McKinsey & Company, McKinsey Global Institute, A Future that Works: Automation, Employment and Productivity, [data accessed May 15, 2018] https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Global%20Themes/Digital%20Disruption/Harnessing%20automation%20for%20a%20future%20that%20works/MGI-A-future-that-works_Full-report.ashx