The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas, it will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.
– President Obama, during his farewell speech
Automation has done incredible things for humans in recent times. However, with each wave of technological change, societies must learn to adapt. In the present day, we are on the brink of yet another technological revolution which will be much more disruptive than any which have come before: a Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The Crisis Begins
Technologists predict that in the next 5 years, widespread job displacement due to automation will hit the United States in a big way. The widely reported automation of the transportation industry will send the first major shockwave through our country as a massive number of people without good alternative employment options find themselves out of work. Many small rural communities will be devastated as they lose vital revenue streams from truckers, which will trigger a migration of people into cities with already strained job markets.
The transition of low-end food service to automated kitchens and ordering terminals will be well underway by this time, and will accelerate due to competition between large restaurant chains who can afford to automate. Restaurants such as Caliburger are already in the process of automating their kitchens, and You may have already ordered a meal at one of McDonald’s new self-service terminals. While some food service will always be performed by humans, a human chef and server will become more of a luxury than an essential mechanism.
Retail will continue to shift from brick and mortar to online, and those physical stores that remain will be run by fewer humans in the years to come. This change can already be seen with the implementation of self-checkout machines and other systems which reduce the number of humans needed in a store. One example is Amazon Go, which eliminates cashiers entirely using AI and sensor technology. As with many automated systems, these machines often require humans to keep watch over them to make sure everything runs smoothly. There will be some jobs doing this, but not nearly as many as there were before, and as technology progresses these positions will be lost as well.
These are not the only blue-collar positions which are on the automation chopping block, but they provide a clear idea of where we’re going. Even where jobs are not lost, pay will be reduced due to a larger supply of people who are desperate for work. When positions with low education requirements are eliminated, it also makes it a lot harder for people to get their foot in the door and learn. The impact on blue-collar work alone will be dramatic, and would on its own be enough to cause a national crisis.
The Automation of Mental Work
Perhaps the most disruptive thing about this wave of automation is that it threatens not only blue-collar positions, but also jobs which involve a great deal of specialized cognitive work previously thought to be safe from technological disruption. This type of automation has the potential to progress much faster, as there is no need to invest in and implement physical devices. Often it comes in the form of software.
There are already programs which automate certain aspects of doctor’s and lawyer’s jobs, some of the highest paid professions in the United States. Surgical machines will be capable of performing operations with no mistakes on no sleep. Those in the financial sector are perhaps at the most risk among white-collar workers, as many of the tasks they are doing will very soon be performed more efficiently by AI. Already Goldman Sachs and many of the largest hedge funds are switching to AI systems, which are better than humans at foreseeing market trends and making trades.
Many people in middle-management positions will find themselves replaced by software which uses advanced AI to manage teams and evaluate productive output. An example of one program already doing this is from the New York startup, WorkFusion. This AI-driven program not only manages teams of workers all around the world, but learns from people by watching them work, so that over time more and more tasks can be automated.
Preparing for What Is to Come
This is the future we are headed for. You might now be wondering whether your job is on the line. Regardless of if this is immediately the case, we must all care about the problems faced by others in this age of dramatic change. Widespread automation will affect all of us sooner or later, whether directly or indirectly. The challenge ahead of us is tremendous, but by working together and passing the right policies in the years ahead, we can build a bright future in the age of automation. There are a number of potential solutions people frequently propose to mitigate technological unemployment. The next few articles in this series will be dedicated to discussing each of them.
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