The inevitability of the crisis notwithstanding, the plight of low-skilled workers begs for greater attention
In May, Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics goods maker, said it would replace 60,000 workers with robots. Foxconn is a contract firm that helps build the iPad, iPhone, Samsung Galaxy series of phones, Sony’s PlayStation 4, etc. Industry watchers expect several other companies to follow the Foxconn way. In fact, the trend has been on for a while now. Reports show that companies in China’s Guangdong province since September 2014 invested $450 million (around Rs.3,000 crore today) in robots which would potentially replace workers. Technology-sponsored unemployment has been worrying workers for some time now. Ironically, in the past, technological advances created more jobs than what they eliminated. The fear of job loss, if any, was dismissed baseless—the Luddite fallacy. But now automation is a threat, alive and clicking.
Some argue that robots replace only low-skilled jobs, which deal with routine, repetitive work. Many experts also claim that this one would provide, like in the past, more jobs that require better abilities and skills. But studies show a different trend and several prominent scientists warn of bigger impact to the job market with the rise of machines automating jobs humans do. Investments in Artificial Intelligence, especially in the area concerning deep learning, are on a rapid rise in the advanced economies such as the US and China. Advances in deep learning have heavily contributed to the development of the driverless car, shifting the focus of automation and robotics from factory production lines to everyday life of humans. According to a report from technology market research firm IDC, worldwide spending on robotics will reach $135 billion in 2019, at a rise of 17% a year.
Automation is set to enter fields which were once assumed to be beyond-automation. For one, driverless cars are set to hit street the moment regulators give them the go. Quill Software, developed by Narrative Science, is natural language generation software which can create meaningful reports using data. Quill is already used to write match reports using match statistics, financial reports using a company’s quarterly results, etc. Automated Insights, another US-based company, has already generated close to a billion such reports. Sports journalism relies heavily on structured data for reporting and benefits a lot from this software. Quill and Wordsmith are adept at doing this. So, in all likelihood, next time you read a financial report on Forbes, you might actually be reading one written by a robot. Going further, jobs such as teaching and medical practice —which are supposed to carry a human touch —could also make way for large scale automation. The advances in AI would help developing robots which could easily substitute for the human characteristics needed for these jobs.
According to a study by McKinsey, 45% of the jobs in the US could be automated using technologies that currently exist. Another 13% is possible with further technological developments in the area of robotics and artificial intelligence. The report also points out that the ability to automate a job is changing with technological advances. A Forrester forecast predicts a million jobs in the business-to-business segments will vanish by 2020. Gartner says a third of the jobs will be taken over by smart robots by 2025.
But not everyone buys this doomsday story. A study conducted on automation risks to jobs in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries concludes that only 9% of the jobs are automatable. Countries such as South Korea have the risk at 6%, while Austria and Spain figure at a high 12%. Though this study places the automatable jobs at a lower percentage, it warns of the impact automation could cause to the low-skilled workers. It also gets tougher for them since the gap in skills is going to be big. This points to the need of having a mechanism to bridge skill inequalities to equip workers to get in sync with the changes. Google’s software program AlphaGo beating the Go world champion Lee Sedol in a Go game between man and machine is considered one of the biggest achievements in the history of Artificial Intelligence. While these achievements are laudable, scientists like Stephen Hawking and computer scientists like Moshe Vardi warn of the potential consequences of these developments. According to Vardi, AI could swallow middle class jobs and could lead to increased income inequality.
Manufacturing is at its best productive phase, but the employment rate in manufacturing is close to that existed in the 1940s. Similar impact could be the case in other fields as well. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, note that the world is at an ‘inflection point’. “The first big inflection point in human history was about 200 years ago, when the steam engine started the industrial revolution. That was a period that saw a whole set of new machines come along that could automate muscle power, physical work. In recent years, we are seeing a wave of technologies that can augment, automate all sorts of cognitive tasks, and we think, ultimately, those will have a big, or even bigger effect on humanity as the first industrial revolution’. In a world where machines can do almost anything and everything, humanity is going to face tougher questions. For the ones at the lower spectrum of the workforce, like the lot Foxconn is replacing, it is an uphill task to remain relevant.