Is a robot eyeing up your job?

Humanoid robot AILA (artificial intelligence lightweight android) operates a switchboard during a demonstration by the German research centre for artificial intelligence.


Humanoid robot AILA (artificial intelligence lightweight android) operates a switchboard during a demonstration by the German research centre for artificial intelligence.

In a recent documentary on Al Jazeera television, journalist Bob Abeshouse discussed advances in robotic technology and asked the question – do these advances  threaten jobs or do they bring new opportunities and  the prospect of a brighter future?

The documentary began by explaining that jobs involving skilled human input are to a large extent safe from robotic replacement, so are those less skilled jobs which nonetheless require a level of dexterity, difficult for a robot to mimic. The most vulnerable jobs are those involving repetitive actions, assembly line jobs for example. However this is changing as robot technology and machine learning capability increase.

In a process called “scaling”, not only the movements, but the analytical skills and judgements required to perform a given task can be broken down and converted into algorithms (a list of instructions or procedures) that can then be programmed into a computer.

In this way human expertise can be widely disseminated into machine language. For example, a robot capable of lifting boxes of various sizes and shapes from a truck and stacking them, can examine a given box and decide which location of a series of locations is best suited for the box type.

Recent advances in scaling mean that computers can write articles and reports. A programme called Wordsmith is being used to regularly analyse data from several thousand earnings reports and write a summary report, including graphs and a narrative discussing trends and conclusions.

Blind tests have shown that readers cannot tell the difference between the computer generated report and a similar report written by humans.

The technology is available today to manufacture driver-less cars, taxis, mining trucks, delivery vans and so on. This means computer technology is set to dramatically affect jobs in the transportation industry. The question is, will the new technologies be bad news for employment generally?

To date the signs have not been good. The place with the highest density of hi-tech companies in the world is Silicon Valley, located in the Bay Area of San Francisco.

This is where Apple and Google have their headquarters. One in three people in the Bay Area are struggling financially and this is because, hi-tech companies are not big employers compared with their more traditional peers. For example, Google has 5 per cent of the employees of General Motors but generates 20 per cent more earnings.

Machine learning is becoming commonplace due to the ever decreasing cost of computing and the ease of access of huge amounts of data.

But, according to Michael Osborne, professor of computing and artificial intelligence at Oxford University, not all jobs can be scaled. Three employment types which require the tacit knowledge capability of humans and are very difficult to scale are: socially intelligent tasks, creative tasks and tasks requiring perception and manipulation in unstructured environments.

The impact of robots and machine learning is already having some unexpected consequences. It is estimated 50 per cent of the jobs in the US could be performed by robots.

How deep this intrusion becomes will depend on cost. The low cost of some forms of robotic technology is leading to the phenomenon of “re-shoring”. This is where work done by cheap labour overseas, comes home and is done by robots instead of foreign labour.

Some economists think that the flexibility of the US workforce means the impact on jobs in the US due to re-shoring will more or less balance out. In Asia the impact may be a lot different.

Increasing labour costs in China are driving many Chinese based companies to replace workers with robots.  In 2014 there was an increase of 27 per cent in the number of robots worldwide, 60 per cent of this increase was in Asia.

Proponents of robot technology say that robots will take humans away from repetitive, dreary jobs bringing in a new era where the worker is a technician, not an automaton. How this will play out is really difficult to predict, but technological advance is inexorable.

In the early 19th century a group of textile workers, known as the Luddites, opposed the technological tsunami brought by the industrial revolution. Their actions proved futile.

To date, the computer revolution has brought a host of new jobs and has improved the quality of life of many people, but, as Vivek Wadhwa a Stanford University lecturer points out, the past is no indication of the future when it comes to the social impact of technology. 

The challenge is to work out how to properly manage the inevitable social consequences of these new technologies.

 – Stuff

Source: Is a robot eyeing up your job?

Via: Google Alerts for AI

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