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Illustration courtesy of: Nathan Daniels

The Future of Work: Technology Will Kill Your Job. Here’s How

Automation is transforming society at a high rate, making cities sleeker and smarter, and changing the way we work and live. Are humans destined to disappear from the workforce? Are we heading towards a jobless future?

There was a time when the word “robot” or “artificial intelligence” led us to an automatically visualization of a dystopian future landscape inside our heads. A science-fiction portrait full of dazzling flying spaceships filled with weird-looking subjects in bright metallic suits guided by tricky software commands. All worthy of an episode of Star Trek. Well, not anymore, the robot-A.I. machinery is here to stay. From the impressive — and creepy — new A.I. assistant at the last Google I/O keynote making hair salon appointments over the phone, to the robot army depicted in a viral video packing groceries in swarms. Artificial intelligence and robotics are making their way into our lives and jobs whether we want them to or not. The question is, what is next? Are we going to continue the discourse against machines or are we at the beginning of a new era of coexistence between humans and computers?

Technology has not only become more powerful, but also more tangible, so much so that the debate around automation in the workplace has staggeringly regained prominence in the past few months. By some estimates, around 800 million jobs will be taken away by 2030. That means 0 to 30 percent of the hours worked daily in the entire world will end up being automated. Jobs and work as we know them are in danger, the exponential technology curve — blame Moore’s law — grows faster every year and according to a study at least 47% of jobs might be under threat of automation. How far are we from these waves of job obsolescence?

Throughout history, the issue of job displacement has ignited concern, rage and chaos. The sentiment towards technological advances is not new, the outcome of a society where jobs have been wiped out by machine entities still elicits fear, mainly because it has happened before several times in history. From 1940 to 2010 an estimated of eight million farmer workers and seven million factory workers went out of jobs because of automation. Yet work has never completely disappeared. It has persisted.

The promise of rapid advances in technology has basically always been the same: efficient machines make work safer, more sophisticated, increase productivity, and improve the economy. By letting computerization do all the mundane, repetitive tasks, humans can focus on more high-maintenance, complicated, cognitive based tasks. A win-win situation for everyone — according to capitalists. Yet, since the ground is shifting, more and more jobs nowadays can be handed over to machines. Will this mean that more people might be displaced in the future?

Futurists argue that the fast development of technology threatens to annihilate jobs and replace humans with super-intelligent machines, with tech experts like Elon Musk declaring that A.I. envisages “immortal dictators from which we can never escape”, while some — often too optimistic — economists suggest ‘these’ robocalyptic scenarios are still out of sight, and that technology will create more jobs than the ones being displaced. Has increase productivity ever threatened employment?

Some techno-optimists and skeptical economists point out that the collective anxiety of running out of work is nonsensical because jobs killed by technological breakthroughs are most often replaced by new-found occupations that support the technologies. Researchers, on the other hand, argue that this new wave of automation could play out differently and suggest that a much bigger social and economic disruption will occur as a result since the new machines often have cognitive capabilities that not long ago were exclusive to humans.

As Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, the company’s five-billion-dollar investment in semiautonomous cars and robots, highlights, “cloud robotics” and “deep learning” are two of the techniques with the potential to spark hyper-exponential growth of capability in machines. This, along with a better availability and capacity of wireless internet, computational power and data storage could lead to a rapid growth in competence which would allow robots to function at a human-level accuracy with self-autonomy. Will humans be able to co-evolve and keep up with technology that seems to be running so far ahead?

“The rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which”. — Stephen Hawking

Revolutionary transformational developments come at a price: high adaptation. The 4th industrial revolution, it’s on its way and will require some reinvention in the market and in people’s abilities to adapt to constant, fluid change. Some argue that the relationship between machines and humans should focus on their mutual synergies rather than the competitive factor. In their book “Human+Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI,” Daugherty and Jim Wilson, IT execs at Accenture Research, proclaim jobs, in the not so far future, will include trainers and explainers making robots and people work alongside each other.

They recently told Wired that “Trainers will teach AI systems and how to perform and mimic human behaviors” while “Explainers will liaise between machines and human supervisors.” In the last issue of The New Yorker, Tad Friend also stated in his article “Superior Intelligence,” that these new synergies will “augment human potential” and go on to the development of new “cutting edge skills” like “holistic meddling” and “responsible normalizing”, that would “qualify humans for exciting new jobs such as ‘explainability strategist’ or ‘data hygienist’.”

But, some scholars affirm that as computers get more powerful companies will have less need for some kind of workers. In “The Second Machine Age,” MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, paint a disquieting picture of the impact of automation: “technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead […] there’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value […] there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”

As new technology adoptions unfold in companies, short-term jobs will be terminated while a new demand for new occupations will be unleashed, at least that’s what some optimists estimate, but how realistic are these predictions? Haven’t we learned from the past that once a job is gone, chances are that it will never come back?

When it comes down to progress in technology, the combination man vs. machine often tends to raise a lot of questions: Will the world be sustained only by a fully automated society? And will it only favor the young and the brave? If the time comes, only new, emerging talent with a fast capability to adapt will effectively transition into new job ventures, leaving millions of skilled workers behind.

When combined, job displacement and capitalism raise a crucial question: Is this new social transformation restructuring the current capitalistic organization? Should we expect a new age of techno-feudalism ruled by capitalists, primary owners of machines and robots, allowing them to rise up to human standards of living, depriving the majority of the population from the technology’s benefits?

“What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?” — Yuval Harari

Whether robots and artificial intelligence will displace a significant number of jobs over the next decades remains to be seen, but predictions about the future of work shed a disturbing light on the vast impact automation will have on employment, skills, and wages.

The key in the future will definitely be adaptability. Humans are creatures used to change and fluidity in their surroundings. We are capable of adaptation; more than we think we really are. We have strategic, innate social skills robots do not possess. Since the very beginning of our existence, work has been the essence and the pinnacle of our lives. It is imperative to find and foster new economic approaches to these issues in order to deal with the upcoming challenges machines will foist on our society. Governments, policymakers, and private companies will have to come up with strategies to allow humans to race ahead of technology instead of racing against it.

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This article is the last part of a series on issues about the future. Read below part I and II.

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