It won’t necessarily be a “machine” as such – it may be a computer program instead. Nevertheless, a very large proportion of traditional blue-collar and white-collar jobs are, right now, being replaced by automation; or, at the very least, their replacement is already being planned. The threat is real, and it’s immediate, not sometime in the future.
A couple of days ago, I mentioned, in passing, a New York Times article titled “The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite“. Here’s an excerpt. Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.
All over the world, executives are spending billions of dollars to transform their businesses into lean, digitized, highly automated operations. They crave the fat profit margins automation can deliver, and they see A.I. as a golden ticket to savings, perhaps by letting them whittle departments with thousands of workers down to just a few dozen.
“People are looking to achieve very big numbers,” said Mohit Joshi, the president of Infosys, a technology and consulting firm that helps other businesses automate their operations. “Earlier they had incremental, 5 to 10 percent goals in reducing their work force. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’”
. . .
A 2017 survey by Deloitte found that 53 percent of companies had already started to use machines to perform tasks previously done by humans. The figure is expected to climb to 72 percent by next year.
. . .
Kai-Fu Lee, the author of “AI Superpowers” and a longtime technology executive, predicts that artificial intelligence will eliminate 40 percent of the world’s jobs within 15 years.
. . .
For an unvarnished view of how some American leaders talk about automation in private, you have to listen to their counterparts in Asia, who often make no attempt to hide their aims. Terry Gou, the chairman of the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, has said the company plans to replace 80 percent of its workers with robots in the next five to 10 years. Richard Liu, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company JD.com, said at a business conference last year that “I hope my company would be 100 percent automation someday.”
. . .
There are plenty of stories of successful reskilling — optimists often cite a program in Kentucky that trained a small group of former coal miners to become computer programmers — but there is little evidence that it works at scale. A report by the World Economic Forum this month estimated that of the 1.37 million workers who are projected to be fully displaced by automation in the next decade, only one in four can be profitably reskilled by private-sector programs. The rest, presumably, will need to fend for themselves or rely on government assistance.
There’s more at the link.
If you think that article is unduly alarmist, think again. Here are a few headlines from the past week or so. Follow the links to read them for yourself.
- Citi Ready To Replace “Tens Of Thousands” Of Call-Center Workers With Robots (if the link leads to a paywall, see the summary here). Money quote: “Under pressure to bring its cost base in line with peers, Citi executives have been upfront about the impact of technology on their 209,000-strong global workforce, including last summer’s warning that as many as half of the 20,000 operations staff in its investment bank could be supplanted by machines.”
- The Most Mindnumbing of Office Tasks Made One Man $360 Million. “Takahashi’s firm provides so-called software bots for more than 500 companies … It helps them to automate routine tasks such as inputting data and checking invoices … “There’s a huge market for software robots using AI technologies,” he said. “Just like industrial robots in factories, if software bots can take on the tedious routine work in offices, we can create a productivity revolution for white-collar jobs.”
- OpenAI’s new multitalented AI writes, translates and slanders. “OpenAI’s new algorithm, named GPT-2 … excels at a task known as language modeling, which tests a program’s ability to predict the next word in a given sentence. Give it a fake headline, and it’ll write the rest of the article, complete with fake quotations and statistics. Feed it the first line of a short story, and it’ll tell you what happens to your character next. It can even write fan fiction, given the right prompt.” (Not a comforting thought for me, as a writer!)
- China has produced another study showing the potential of AI in medical diagnosis. “Researchers found that the AI system was able to meet or outperform two groups of junior physicians in accurately diagnosing a range of ailments, from asthma and pneumonia, to sinusitis and mouth-related diseases. The AI was also able to meet or exceed diagnostic performance with some groups of senior physicians, for instance, in the category of upper respiratory issues … In no category did the AI model dip below a diagnostic accuracy rate of about 79%…”
It used to be said that only repetitive office tasks such as basic book-keeping, order entry, etc. were at risk of automation in the short term. However, as the links above show, that now extends deep into white-collar territory. It also has implications for supervisory and management positions. If the junior staff aren’t there, they don’t need supervisors or managers, do they? Some expertise will have to be retained in-house, but I’ll be surprised if it’s as many as one in four of the numbers who used to be employed in such tasks. I think it’ll be more likely to be one-in-six, perhaps one-in-eight – and the ratio will decrease even further over time.
If you’re in any job that can be handled by an automated system, whether blue-collar or white-collar, you need to be looking into re-training and re-skilling yourself, right now. It’s as critical as that. It can no longer wait for some nebulous future date – and if you do wait, you’ll be part of a flood of newly unemployed people, all trying to do the same thing. The competition will be intense, perhaps ruinous. Far better to beat the rush and start the process now, even (if necessary) at the cost of some short-term monetary pain. If you work for a company such as Amazon.com, with its Career Choice program, your employer may pay most of the costs: if not, sadly, you’ll have to fund them yourself – but it remains a worthwhile and necessary investment. Train for a job where you can make yourself indispensable, or where a machine or AI replacement will be difficult to accomplish. (The skilled trades look very good right now – plumbing, HVAC, vehicle repair, etc. are unlikely to be automated anytime soon, due to non-standard conditions in the field to which a robot or AI system will find it hard to adjust. However, I daresay their time will come.)
As for me, I’d better write better! If an AI can produce “formulaic” fiction good enough to sell, I’d better make sure I can write to a higher standard than that, so I can continue to make a living. Forewarned is forearmed!