Future Of Employment

It seems to me….

Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt[1].

Herbert Simon[2] will eventually be proven correct when he wrote in 1956 that “machines will be capable … of doing any work a man can do” but this does not imply there will no longer be any necessity to work. Though it might be possible for a machine to perform some tasks, much will remain beyond the current scope or economic justification of it being performed by a non-human. It will be quite some time before humans performing non-rote or creative tasks, whether infrastructure repair and improvement or research, will not be needed. Still it is, or at least should be, of increasing concern.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the U.S. continued to add lower-level jobs at a rapid pace throughout 2015 with the average workweek being only 34.5 hours. Employers added 292,000 jobs in December but the majority of those jobs were either temp work or in driving, health care, or construction with their average hourly earnings remaining flat throughout all of 2015[3]. While the official unemployment rate is less than 5 percent, the underemployment rate, including part-time workers who’d prefer a full-time position and people who want to work but have given up looking, held at almost 10 percent of all working-age Americans.

Increased use of computers and robotics is resulting in the elimination of repetitious lower-level employment opportunities. The resulting low pay and growing job insecurity are undermining the U.S. workforce generating growing economic stresses for large numbers of lower-skilled workers along with deepening frustration and anger. Unfortunately, computerization and automation will result in significant structural unemployment unless measures are taken to reduce those effects. Additional large increases in income inequality and masses of effectively unemployable people most likely would result in a breakdown of our social order.

Displacement of workers by robots and artificial intelligence (AI) is going to continue, and even accelerate, over the coming decade. Optimists predict an economic boom resulting from vastly reduced business costs leading to the creation of a substantial number of new jobs but this will most likely not occur without government intercession, something opposed by conservatives. Another benefit would be that elimination of work not requiring uniquely human capabilities could result in a freedom from day-to-day drudgery enabling people to define work in a more positive and socially beneficial way. This would necessitate fostering the kind of society that not only frees people from menial labor but also enables them to reach their full human potential rather than being required to fill some humbling position. Something mostly unavailable today.

One study found that roughly 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are at risk of computerization or automation[4]. Who is affected will primarily depend upon the perceived value society places on that specific work, individual knowledge, creative thinking, curiosity, and numerous other aspects differentiating humans from machines.

Many activities requiring human labor or operators in the recent past that have already been automated include telephone exchanges, typing pools, factory work, and operators of printing presses, vacuum cleaners, washing machines…. Some hurdles regarding fine motor skills and decision making still must be overcome before robots will be able to work completely on their own in manufacturing; even the most sophisticated robots still require humans to closely observe and orchestrate their work.

Other types of job categories will take longer to eliminate. While it would be possible to re-engineer our existing infrastructure such that it could be maintained by automata, the cost could not be justified. Only as new construction replaces aging facilities would that become feasible. Similarly, smart systems, remotely monitored by sensors, could help with product maintenance and ward off potential problems but while achievable, companies off-shoring these types of activities have met considerable customer opposition due to low language and skill levels of foreign workers.

The fast-food industry is a major employer but it already is beginning to transition to more automated customer interaction. Automated ordering kiosks already are in a few McDonald’s restaurants around the world and cooking positions could be eliminated next. The kiosks probably can’t handle customer service issues well, but televideo systems could bring in an office employee to facilitate complaints. Automation also is taking place in casual dining restaurants as well: tableside tablet ordering systems are already available at restaurants like Chili’s and Red Robin.

Preparations should be made to help retrain and place workers whose jobs are being eliminated – especially since some of society’s most economically vulnerable people and communities will be hit hardest by the transition[5].

While many jobs will be eliminated, many will remain resilient to automation for quite some time. People whose jobs are replaced by machines and algorithms eventually will do what human beings always have done historically when technology mandated similar transitions: they eventually switch to better and more interesting categories of employment. Some will create new products pushing humanity forward in the process.

No one should belittle or demean people concerned about losing their jobs; there are few things more human than fearing loss of employment and its possible consequential effect upon the livelihood of one’s family. Occupational elimination has been a concern from the time humans stopped hunting-and-gathering, began settling in communities, and took on specialized roles. That fear only intensified following the Industrial Revolution when factories and industry jobs replaced work that involved skilled trades, farming, and the labor to make handmade goods. More and more people became dependent on companies for the work to earn their livelihood.

When companies replace jobs with robots and algorithms, humans eventually will find new things to do. The key word however is “eventually”. With extra time on their hands, people give in to our natural curiosity and creativity. Robots and algorithms currently are very good at tasks mostly involving brute force; either physical or computational. Automata are not yet very good at tasks involving creativity, nuance, empathy, or finesse.

Past periods of rapid employment transitions; such as the Industrial Revolution which began in Great Britain around 1760; resulted in societal disruption and massive protests movements. Even today, those protesting technology-motivated job loss are called “Luddites” after textile workers in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution who protested the introduction of machines threatening to make their jobs obsolete.

Societal disruption during the Industrial Revolution lasted about seventy years but coming on the heels of the prior Agricultural Revolution, primarily resulting from a land reform system known as “enclosure”, actually extended several centuries prior to society and culture transitioning to fully incorporate those changes. These vicissitudes marked a significant inflection point and discontinuity in civilization at that time. We currently are facing a similar inflection point but need to satisfactorily adapt to a transformed world much more quickly than back then.

At a time when real unemployment is near 11 percent, we need jobs and we need them now. Obviously increased education availability will be necessary to fit into that world but the cost of those resources are becoming increasingly beyond the reach of students; especially those from lower-income families. Additional training and retraining will be necessary for those workers displaced by technology. More research will be required to develop newer products to replace those obsoleted by the rapid pace of technological advancement.

It also must be accepted that not everyone is suited for innovative and creative types of occupations. Access to colleges and universities must be available cost-free to all qualified but vocational training must likewise be available for those either not able or unwilling to pursue an academic degree program. Employment opportunities also must be provided for them.

When one of every nine bridges in the U.S. is structurally deficient and nearly a quarter are functionally obsolete, there obviously is sufficient need just on existing projects to provide employment for all desiring it. Our entire infrastructure is in need of maintenance and improvement while putting Americans back to work at the same time[6]. We need to convert our current carbon-based economy to one that is sustainable. All it takes is the political will to do it.

When considering the havoc that robotics, AI, and automation will cause to today’s economic models, the future appears bleak for workers. There’s likely to be displacement, upheaval, and societal changes when these trends fully take hold and due to the potential scale of those effects, they also will most likely unleash an unprecedented new wave of innovation[7] freeing people from mindless jobs and giving them the greatest of resources: time.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Theodore Roosevelt was an American statesman, author, explorer, soldier, naturalist, and reformer who served as the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909.

[2] Herbert Alexander Simon, a Nobel laureate, was an American political scientist, economist, sociologist, psychologist, and computer scientist whose research ranged across the fields of cognitive psychology, cognitive science, computer science, public administration, economics, management, philosophy of science, sociology, and political science, unified by studies of decision-making. With almost a thousand highly cited publications, he was one of the most influential social scientists of the twentieth century.

[3] Reich, Robert. Facebook posting, https://www.facebook.com/RBReich/?fref=nf, 8 January 2015.

[4] Frey, Carl Benedikt, and Michael A. Osborne. The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation?, Oxford Martin School, http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf, 17 September 2013.

[5] Hiner, Jason. When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do, ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/article/when-robots-eliminate-jobs-humans-will-find-better-things-to-do/?tag=nl.e539&s_cid=e539&ttag=e539&ftag=TRE17cfd61, 2 August 2015.

[6] Sanders, Bernie. Facebook, 25 June 2015.

[7] Smith, Aaron, and Janna Anderson. AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs, Pew Research Center, http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/06/future-of-jobs/, 8 August 2014.


About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
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One Response to Future Of Employment

  1. Rick Carlsen says:

    So far we, as a nation, are enjoying a period of prosperity for many. Unfortunately, almost half of our population is dependent on money from “the government.” This cost puts us in debt for about a million-million (trillion) dollars a year. How long this can continue is more than a matter for polite discussion. Our indebtedness will soon exceed twenty million-million dollars. At some point, this prosperity must end. I welcome serious suggestions…

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