You might have heard of Flippy, a controversial burger-flipping robot with the sole purpose of cooking you a perfect patty. It has been successfully implemented in a Californian burger chain but was recently taken offline for being too slow. With such headlines it’s easy to overlook and even ridicule the impressive rise of automation and its potentially devastating impact on jobs and inequality.
This is a highly debated issue, when asked if future automation will remove more jobs than it creates, 48% of experts thought it would.
Automation: a tool for progression…
As new technologies develop, a calamitous loss of jobs is often forecast. However, it often does not result in the apocalyptic event we expect. In reality, technology simply changes the nature of the jobs available – increasing productivity – rather than usurping the role of the worker; whether it be the Luddites and mechanical looms or the more recent invention of the computer. Automation will be no different.
This flawed belief stems from the lump of labour fallacy, as old jobs are lost there will be no new jobs to replace them. Engineers have no moral obligation to slow automation and progression, as those displaced from jobs will find jobs in new sectors that we can’t imagine right now. Often, more work is created to sustain the replacing technology. One survey suggests that 65% of current students will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.
Automation can also be used to transform dangerous professions. For example, jobs in radioactive environments, could be eradicated as well as many menial jobs. Engineers continue to develop technologies that improve the quality of life for many. Freeing undesirable jobs increases overall productivity of the economy and shifts the job market to higher skilled work. As automation becomes a greater part of our world we will move to professions that are characteristically human, such as care work, that involve elevated levels of empathy. Industry statistics show that an ever-increasing proportion of the population are shifting towards the service sector; which are still jobs that mostly humans do. This is the fastest growing sector in China, having doubled in the last two decades.
Automation not only brings us better productivity but also better products and services. IBM’s Watson, an incredible medical diagnostic tool, and similar data-gorging AI can often perform specific tasks to a higher standard than an expert human. Why should engineers not embrace a technology that will benefit the majority? It would be more unethical to abandon it. The NHS reports 40,000 deaths per year from misdiagnosis by human error.
Is it worth so many dying and impeding progress simply to save a few jobs?
At the end of the day, automation is inevitable as it produces significant benefits for humankind at very little effort and is the only way we can further increase our standard of living.
…or a recipe for disaster
Granted, jobs have always been created as technological advances have been made. During the industrial revolution, industries requiring unskilled manual labour were dramatically changed causing widespread unemployment. However between 2000 and 2010, 87% of manufacturing jobs were lost due to automation and 45% of jobs that are currently held by humans can and will be easily automated by 2028. One could argue that this resembles issues seen before – it is simply another technological revolution that we will adjust to.
The main difference this time, with the advent of machine learning, is that many skilled jobs considered only capable by humans will be done much faster and better by a robot. If IBM’s Watson can do a doctor’s job faster and better, what is to stop automation moving into other professional sectors?
Even jobs in creative sectors are threatened by automation with AI programs able to create their own music, art and sculptures. Take this example of an artwork that has used deep neural networks to merge the pages from a horticulture book with one of dinosaurs.
Soon a client will be able to put a couple of ideas into a computer to produce a design, replacing the need for a graphic designer.
Even if more skilled jobs are created, inevitably there will be job losses. Most jobs are unskilled: we are simply equipping the higher skilled with better tools and any new jobs will require an entirely different skillset or background – unattainable for the person who’s just been made redundant. Even if we did agree that “it’ll all be fine in the long term”, who are we, as engineers, to totally disrupt the lives of many?
The new jobs that will be created from automation will soon be replaced by more machines and so the cycle continues, only faster, until we are at a point where there are no jobs suited for humans. One study suggests this could be within 120 years.
If we have no jobs and wealth in the economy is being generated by machines, how will the wealth be distributed? Chances are it will be unevenly. By automating processes and machines we’re supporting a descent into further global inequality with even greater wealth held by fewer people. We will be left in a world where all the wealth is owned by executives left in charge of mostly automated robots. Unemployment will skyrocket, people will lack purpose and quality of life for the majority will decline and our place in this world come into question.
So should we worry about this? Will nature take its course? Eventually yes, progress is inevitable, but engineers must be careful when designing products to consider the impacts it will have on society. Legislators must be prepared for the drastic changes in our lifestyle to ensure that the quality of life is improved for everyone. A universal income system such as the one trialled in Finland will be necessary when people are no longer required to work.