Will robots take or power your job?

Much has been written of late about whether automation will take our jobs. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Andreesen and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt forecast that robots will take over drudge work, freeing human potential and time to be more creative and innovative. On the other end of the spectrum are thought leaders like Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne who predict that nearly half of all American jobs could disappear in the next few decades. Former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates also believes that robots could be in place in a number of job categories in 20 years, especially those within “the lower end of the skill set” – although he also expressed concerns over the long term risks of advanced artificial intelligence.

While the future is uncertain, one thing is clear: robots are here to stay. Just like the Industrial Revolution — in which machines took over some physical tasks — the Digital Revolution will probably place robots in some jobs. At the same time, many of today’s jobs didn’t exist before the Industrial Revolution, including those of programmers, network engineers and data scientists. This leads Mr Andreesen to note that “this robot fear-mongering . . . is textbook Luddism, relying on a ‘lump-of-labor’ fallacy—the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done”. (The Luddites were 19th-century textile workers who, fearing displacement by machines, protested by torching factories and destroying equipment.)

The challenge, of course, is that the new kinds of jobs that might exist in the future are difficult to envision currently. At issues is not whether jobs will be destroyed, but whether creation will outpace destruction and what skill sets to emphasise now to prepare for the future.

At particularly high risk, according to Mr Frey and Mr Osborne, could be middle-skill jobs involving routine and rules, such as those in office administration. Some white-collar jobs are also at risk. Pattern-recognising software could soon diagnose diseases faster (and more accurately) than doctors, but this does not necessarily result in the replacement of doctors so much as in a redefinition of the skills required to be a doctor. Futurist Jason Corsello foresees doctors interacting with patients’ wearable devices or city planners interpreting data sets from interconnected energy, water, environmental and transport systems. While the robots are weeding and harvesting, farmers might be analysing highly localised weather forecasts, attending to animals that nanosensors have identified as on the cusp of illness and considering the next set of plantings based on predictive data sets.

Even as demand for those with skills in data analysis, coding, computer science, artificial intelligence and human-machine interface will rise, so might demand for “softer” skills. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, suggests emphasising education and training for jobs where “humans outclass computers”, such as those involving caring, creativity and innovative craftsmanship. In this manner, she suggests, referencing Star Trek, “we make the future look more like the harmonious United Federation of Planets . . . and less like the soul-destroying Borg Collective”.

This post first appeared on GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman is a contributing writer for GE Look Ahead.

Image: A man shakes hands with a robotic prosthetic hand in the Intel booth at the International Consumer Electronics show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada January 6, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking.

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