How advances in automation will change the future of work

Science Friday
Robotic assembly line

It's been a common dilemma since the dawn of the industrial age, machines taking jobs away from people.

We call it automation. And while you likely won’t hear this spoken aloud amid all the semi-factual rhetoric of an election season, most experts say that many more jobs have been lost in the last 25 years to automation than to trade policy.

And it’s not likely to stop. Speakers at the World Economic Forum this year said about seven million jobs will be lost and two million gained by the year 2020 as a result of technological change in the 15 major developed and emerging economies.

So, does the future of work look grim?

“It depends on what we're trying to solve for,” says James Manyika, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company and a director of the McKinsey Global Institute in San Francisco.

“On the one hand, if we’re trying to solve for work — meaning, are there things for people to do? — I think there will be plenty of things for people to do,” Manyika says. “But if we’re trying to solve for incomes and standards of living and so forth, that becomes much more problematic. We may have to think about: When much of the work driving output in the economy is being done by machines, what do wage models look like in that world? And that's a big question.”

Manyika co-authored a recent article analyzing which industries are using automation. The paper took an “activity-level analysis” of about 800 occupations across the US economy, Manyika explains.

“We found that, if you take an activity view, about 45 percent of activities in the economy could be automated with already demonstrated technology,” he says. “But if you ask, ‘How many whole jobs could be automated,’ we found that the estimate for the near future was about 5 percent.”

Beyond the next decade or so, however, Manyika projects that 30 percent of activities in about 60 percent of jobs will be automated. In other words, he says, while jobs may not be eliminated, they are going to change dramatically. In many cases, people will likely not be totally replaced, Manyika says. Instead, machines will complement their activities.

“People are going to need to be competent, or the machines are going to have to be designed in such a way that people can work with them,” he says.

As for the roughly 5 percent who may find their occupations entirely automated, most of these workers will be in what Manyika calls the “middle-skill category.” Middle-skill jobs typically involve data processing, data collection, and/or they are performed in a highly structured environment — a worker on an assembly line, a clerk who spends hours capturing accounting records. These jobs are very easy to automate, Manyika says, so rates of automation may actually be as high as 15 to 20 percent.

Howie Choset, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, understands the anxiety and also sees great potential in automation.

“I see a future with robots creating jobs, empowering the American workers in today's jobs,” he says. “I think we have only begun to see the true potential of what technology can do for employees and for productivity.”

Choset cites companies that are working to create "collaborative robots" — robots that work in close proximity to people or directly with people, in order to help them carry out tasks. Robots will allow workers to carry out tasks more quickly, with better attention to quality, fewer errors, better safety and a more ergonomic working environment for the person, as well.

“Workers on a production line often have to reach into configurations that are just hurtful to their bodies,” Choset says. “With a robot that's both a tool and a partner, they can carry out the task and have it be ergonomic. They're not going to get hurt; they’re going to be safer.”

What’s more, robots can get into hard-to-reach, dangerous places to do tasks that people shouldn't be doing in the first place, like in the aftermath of a nuclear power plant disaster, Choset says.

Robots will likely never take over jobs in which the human touch is fundamental, like in caregiving, nursing and teaching, but Choset says robotic tools may provide a useful complement.

“I do see us developing intelligent technology, robotic tools that can do some of the more mundane tasks that a caregiver may not want to deliver, nor the patient want to receive from a person,” Choset says. “Certain kinds of bathing and cleaning, for example.”

In addition, robots and technology require designers and software developers — jobs that require higher-level thinking and creativity.

“In that regard, not only are we creating jobs, because we’ve empowered the American worker, but we're also creating jobs for people to deploy, maintain and perhaps operate these robots — and these are fine jobs to have,” Choset says.

The broader question, as automation continues to progress, is how we are going to restructure our world so it works for everybody.

“I think that gets to some fundamental, ideological questions about work, wages and incomes that are being debated in this political season,” Manyika says.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow.

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