The prospect of machines taking over jobs is troublesome for several reasons. First of all, it’s happening at an accelerating pace, and society overall is beginning to feel the effects of massive automation. But even more troubling are the kinds of jobs that machines will take over – all of them. We need to start preparing for a jobless future in which only a small number of people use machines to manage all work.
Most people are familiar with the huge impact industrial robots have had in the manufacturing industry. Robot arms with enormous strength, dexterity and coordinated activity are being employed around the world to replace almost every job in typical manufacturing plants. The common assumption is that all of these jobs are repetitious and thus lend themselves to automation; however, recent advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are changing what is possible, pushing the automation boundaries deeper and deeper into human worker territory. In manufacturing, it seems like only a matter of time before we achieve complete automation, but all other fields are being affected.
An argument might be made that jobs requiring on-the-fly decision making and human level dexterity will not be robot jobs for decades to come, because these tasks can only be successfully performed by humans. But recent advances in AI indicate that this distinction might not hold for long. Consider the AI required to drive a car. A decade ago, self-driving cars seemed like science fiction. But the technology is working now, and within the next decade or two this capability will be commonplace (https://www.wired.com/2017/06/impact-of-autonomous-vehicles/).
AI used for automated driving must recognize objects in real-time, hold vast knowledge of maps, maintain all the rules of the road and apply them perfectly while maintaining knowledge for an endless number of edge cases. These same AI capabilities apply to all other fields including professionals. Professional practices such as medicine, law, teaching, engineering, accounting, etc. are being affected by automation. AI systems are being built today that are having a huge impact on these jobs. (https://hbr.org/2016/10/robots-will-replace-doctors-lawyers-and-other-professionals)
Jobs in the service sector have long been thought safe from automation because of the robot communication barrier. You can’t easily talk to a robot – yet. But the field of automated language processing is being propelled ahead rapidly by the same innovations driving the rest of the field of AI, making human level interactions more realistic every day. “Speech Generation” and “Natural Language Understanding” are core skills a robot will need to do the job of a human, and we see these systems now emerging in generally available commercial products like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. These systems are advancing in both intelligence and domain knowledge. The technology is in such demand that developers world-wide are jumping in and working hard to compete in a newly emerging “intelligence” market. In the next few years AI interfaces will replace or augment most user Interface systems. ((https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2017/04/technology-trends-people-ai-new-ui/)
Even the creative fields are being impacted in the push for automation. While computer compositions will not likely replace human creations any time soon, tools are now available that significantly improve the ability of a small creative teams to increase their productive output. Vast movie sets are being replaced by computer generated backgrounds, props and even people. Mixing and mastering is all software driven. The writing field is also being affected with the development of advanced AI tools that convert raw data (such as sporting event data) into fully formed descriptions and basic notes into full documents.
The next decade will see unprecedented changes in the work force. Currently existing jobs will vanish. New jobs will be scarce and will not at all resemble the old jobs they replace. Any work that remains for humans to undertake will require specialized skills, largely involving the use of intelligent machines to manage people and automated processes. And, unfortunately, only a small number of people will be required to do that. The Luddites were correct, machines will replace people – they were just two centuries too early.