Everybody is talking about how automation will impact employment. From robotics in Manufacturing to AI in legal firms, millions of jobs may be affected by our increasingly automated society. So what are we going to do about this feared ‘mass unemployment’?

Is It Really An Issue?

Whilst the mainstream media is running around yelling that the sky is falling, it’s important to maintain perspective. Is AI going to take our jobs, really?

Well, it’s a tough one to answer. It’s undoubtable that jobs will be lost, but if history tells us anything, it is that where old jobs disappear, technology creates new ones. The first Industrial Revolution was a major disruption to the entire way of life people had been used to. Electricity and telephones, and the subsequent invention and mass adoption of the television, likewise altered the face of society. Again, when the Internet arrived, life as we knew it was altered beyond recognition.

The way we live is changing again under developments in AI and automation in general. At no point has mass unemployment been the result of new technologies. Rather, and particularly in the case of the Internet, our working lives have become immeasurably more streamlined and efficient. We now also have freedom to pursue more employment options than ever before. Though we cannot accurately envisage what the new working landscape will look like in the era of automation, it is more than probable that new job roles will arise.

That being said, there will still be a crisis. As Leigh Watson Healy, chief analyst at market research firm Outsell, explains: “The pace of technology advancements plus the big data phenomenon lead to a whole new level of machines to perform higher level cognitive tasks.”

This means that we are going to have to work very hard to find roles to fit the new society. It may not be as apocalyptic as the newspapers say, but make no mistake, people will not be able to work as they did before.

Reassessing Your Talents

In the workplace of the future, a different set of skills will be required. These will, of course, be those which no AI or robot can do.

Strong interpersonal skills, already a big factor in employability for many roles, will become even more prized. If we are placed in a position in which our ability to relate to, engage with, and positively influence others is more important, perhaps we can expect friendlier, more helpful sales staff, for instance!

All joking aside, prioritising how people relate to one another may actually lead to a more pleasant society in general. Roles caring for others, in nursing, care work, teaching, and childcare may become more lucrative. This will be all the more useful considering the global issue of ageing population .

For those who are, perhaps, less good with people, computer and data science will be the most widespread. Business leaders are already calling for low-skilled workers who are at risk of being ousted by automation to retrain as coders and programmers.

Mark Cuban recently stated that the first trillionaire will be an AI entrepreneur, specifically, “somebody who masters AI and all its derivatives and applies it in ways we never thought of”. It’s hard to argue with his logic.

Roboticists and technicians of all levels will also win under the automation age. However, the extent to which they are needed will have some limit if we reach a stage at which robots and AI can repair, upgrade, and manage themselves or each other. That is also a real possibility.

Then, finally, there are the creatives. Try as they might, AI isn’t exactly the next Shakespeare yet, nor Da Vinci, or Mozart. Having said that, there are plenty of examples of algorithms doing a pretty good job of creating art and music.

Whilst the above video is emotionally-stirring in some respects (I quite like the line “He looks at me and pushes me out of his eyes”) that emotive element is only communicated through the human acting.

Regardless, however, of how sophisticated AI gets at being creative, it is unlikely that we will ever prefer it to the human touch. As artist, Mat Collishaw, recently put it:

“The gallery experience is meditative, almost church-like. You wander and engage thoughtfully with the works around you. There’s a sense of physical connection in the gallery or exhibition space… Whilst the threat of automation in industry is quite real, I think the art world will survive the ravages of technology.”

This means great things for the many, many creatives currently forced to commodify their talents in (at times) deeply unsatisfying careers. The creative mind will remain very much alive in industries like Film, probably working in tandem with artificial intelligence and other technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality. Whilst a lot of creatives working in Advertising may see an upheaval as the neo-ambient advertising age takes hold under the reign of IoT, human creativity is likely to carry a price premium in new media that materialise in the automated age.

Blue Collar vs. White Collar Unemployment

Blue collar jobs in Manufacturing will suffer a great blow because of automation, more likely from robots rather than artificial intelligence. This will decimate huge swathes of low-income families in developing nations, much more so than here in the West. That is an unavoidable reality and something that needs to be urgently addressed. There are, as yet, no answers as to where these unskilled or very specifically skilled workers will go, or what will happen to them.

Nonetheless, in the wealthy countries of the West, there seems to be more of a scandal surrounding the white collar jobs that are at risk. We outlined above what skills will be potentially more lucrative in the automated future, but the issues facing the current white collar workforce are taking centre stage.

Among those most likely to suffer are financial analysts and advisors, sports and financial reporters, online marketers, and surgeons and anesthesiologists. Though, it’s worth noting the recent news that a robotic anesthesiologist marketed by Johnson & Johnson has been binned as no one would buy it.

There’s a slightly outdated but interesting article on the white collar jobs at risk, written by Erik Sherman for Fortune from 2015, which is worth a read.

What If The Worst Happens?

Opinions as to how optimistic or pessimistic our future may be fluctuate wildly. Whilst we have tried to balance both sides of the coin in this article, we should pay some attention to the worst case scenario. Unlike most worst case scenarios, however, this one might be more realistic than the rosy alternative where new jobs are born.

The sheer velocity of advancement in AI is dizzying. Some even argue that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence within under thirty years. Whether or not this prediction is accurate, it’s safe to say that this rate of advancement is unprecedented in the history of humankind. That’s why addressing the situation now is so crucial.

We already mentioned the serious threat posed to those in the developing world whose sole source of income will be swallowed whole by automation. These are the people who will be hit hardest. Nonetheless, they are far from the only ones.

If we suppose that the majority of jobs will disappear, only to be replaced by ones that are unsuitable for the workforce, then the only answer is a complete rethink of the way our society is structured. Some, such as Bill Gates, are behind the idea of a Universal Basic Income, where everybody is given a guaranteed income to keep the economic wheels turning. Others argue that the whole idea is absurd, and will only lead to more problems than it solves.

So, what exactly is the answer? Do we, the great unemployed mass, wallow in swamps, build our homes from mud and sticks and drink pond water like the surplus scum we are whilst the elite enjoy the fruits of automation? Or should we allow global capitalism to grind to an inevitable halt and live some utopian dream? Or, do we let the AI overlords plug us into the Matrix and start the whole thing again? Send your answers on a postcard…

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