According to a recent study from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology nearly half of all U.S. jobs could be replaced by computers over the next two decades. Although the report specifically mentions U.S. jobs, it is fairly safe to assume that this means a significant impact on jobs worldwide. I've talked about this before, and I'm sure that I will again because the emergence of robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing could have an economic impact rivaling climate change.
The 50 per cent figure in the study may even be a conservative estimate. Oxford Martin suggests a move toward "creative and social intelligence tasks" for low skilled workers:
"Our findings imply that as technology races ahead, low-skilled workers will move to tasks that are not susceptible to computerization, i.e., tasks that require creative and social intelligence," the paper states.
For example, while high-risk sales occupations (cashiers, counter and rental clerks, and telemarketers) interactive tasks, they do not necessarily require a high degree of social intelligence.
"For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills."
However this assumes that "creative skills" can be easily taught and it may underestimate the pace at which artificial intelligence is developing. Using AI and algorithms, computers are already doing basic news reporting and composing music. Given a few more decades of development and a better understanding of how the human brain works there is little reason to believe that moderately creative jobs will be "safe."
There is also no reason to believe that all of the jobs replaced will be low-end or unskilled. There are already ongoing attempts to create artificial intelligence applications to replace physicians, lawyers, investment fund managers and others.
The Oxford Martin study also doesn't seem to take into account the potential disruptive force of 3D printing. The ability to simply "print" consumer products, including food, could do to manufacturing, shipping and retail what Napster did to the recording industry. When people can simply, for little or no money, download blueprints and create what they want what does that do to factories, delivery trucks and shopping centers?
Additionally, none of this takes into account the jobs that will vanish when the economic impact of all of these job losses hits home. In other words, if tens of millions of jobs suddenly disappear and the workers impacted have no income, or at least no discretionary income what does that do to the parts of the economy not directly impacted by robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing?
Currently governments, NGOs, private organizations and individuals are, to some extent, contemplating, tracking and considering the potential impact of climate change. Unfortunately, very few organizations or individuals appear to be seriously considering the technological tsunami that is bearing down on job markets. In the past new technologies have generally brought new, different jobs. For example, computers cut accounting jobs but created jobs for technicians and programmers. This time things look very different though.
Sit down for awhile and think about what kind of jobs may be "safe" or what new jobs might be created if computers can replace doctors, lawyers, journalists, composers and business executives. While you're thinking, don't forget that these new robots and computers can build new robots and can repair themselves.
We cannot stop this from happening, and probably don't want to. Banning bulldozers to make more jobs for people with shovels is contrary to the core of human behavior. Provided we can find a way for the economy to continue to operate and for people to continue to feed, house and clothe themselves it could be an amazing, positive development. Perhaps technological advancement and capitalism have reached a crescendo and it will no longer be necessary for anyone to do anything that they do not want to do.
We do, however, have to figure out what this virtually jobless future is going to look like and what role humans will play when "work" is over and we have to do this fairly quickly because these things are happening now and will only continue to accelerate.
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