Tuesday 24 May 2016

Our new tin overlords

In yesterday's Guardian was an article about the impending takeover of robots, as described in a new and rather depressing book "Age of Em". I won't spoil the armageddon-scenarios for you. Curiously, I am reading another far more encouraging book on a similar subject, "The Second Machine Age" by MIT professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee.

Both books, consider the implications to us humans on the nature of our work. We are at a fascinating and scary point in history where computers are starting to do things that we previously thought they could never do: drive cars, play strategy games, write news. The latter book describes how we are at the start of a new industrial revolution: the coming years will transform our world in ways we couldn't possibly imagine. What will this do to our jobs?

Useful analogies can be learned from history, particularly the Industrial Revolution. Today we don't think much about the massive societal impact that the steam engine and the electric motor had on the jobs these machines replaced.  In the long term, our society will be better off. Yet it is clear that the digital age is threatening to replace today's jobs on an unprecedented scale. Will there be such a thing as a human taxi driver in 20 years? Will it be possible to do any shopping except online? Will the robots really do everything that humans do today, as suggested in the Guardian article and its book?

Fortunately, Brynjolfsson and McAfee quote some studies that look at the sorts of skills that are affected by computerization ... and the sorts of skills that are less likely to be replaced. Whilst the findings are scary, it is important to look for the good news rather than the bad news.

First, robots are very good at doing repetitive, mundane boring and predictable tasks repetitively, predictably and for long periods of time without complaining, without joining unions or without needing tea-breaks. The more mundane, the more suitable for automation. Already, robots have replaced many of these on the production-line.

Second, people are very good at interacting with other people. Any job that requires empathy, understanding, diplomacy, reading-between-the-lines, comforting, or training stands a good chance of being a future-proof job. Nursing and other healthcare jobs will reap massive benefits from technology (like this example), but I cannot see a day when suffering humans would prefer the care of a robot to the care of another human being. Jobs with a strong social element such as bar-tending, waitering, mentoring and hairdressing are also likely to survive.

Another area of work that is unlikely to be replaced by technology is the creative realm. Whilst technology will continue to cause big changes to these roles, they are unlikely candidates for electronic replacement. Jobs in education, the arts, and anything involving aesthetically pleasing results such as architecture, gardening, or cooking, have good long-term prospects.

Other roles may be more affected by technological change. As robotics and the technology we clumsily call "3D printing" develops (we should call it sculpting instead), so it will become possible for entire buildings to be constructed by a collection of machines. Construction sites are among the most dangerous work-places, and would therefore benefit greatly from robotics. Whilst a human-free building site is still in the realms of fiction, there are already machines making inroads into this industry.  The world of "unskilled labour" is perhaps the one where men will have to compete most aggressively with machines in the next decade. Yet with all the advances of mechanical mini-diggers and power-tools today, there are still plenty of jobs that are done by hand: the flexibility of a labourer over a machine is hard to beat.

So where does that leave us as a society of humans? Are we being replaced by our new tin overlords? No - we are far too inventive for that.  Our hope - and indeed the flavour of our future jobs - lies in the things that make us human, the things which separate us from robots: our creativity, our compassion for each other, and our ability to do things that have never been done before, like creating robots to do some of our work for us.

1 comment:

  1. Very timely - Dubai announced the first "3D-printed" concrete house today: http://www.engadget.com/2016/05/24/worlds-first-3d-printed-office-dubai/