Will 2017 be the turning point for robots and jobs?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 29, 2016
Can Donald Trump prevent robots from taking over our jobs? Evan Vucci / AP Photo

Can Donald Trump prevent robots from taking over our jobs? Evan Vucci / AP Photo

A new year generally starts off a bit like a shooting star, trailing a dazzling series of predictions, some of which are more likely to come true than others. So too with 2017. Some of the most powerful prophecies for the year involve technology and innovation, their effect on jobs and the need for political solutions to manage transition.

What is tomorrow’s world expected to look like? Different, certainly. Economists say there will be many more driverless vehicles on the roads (both cars and lorries), flocks of delivery drones in the skies, grocery stores sans cashiers and the increasing automation of traditional manufacturing plants and of some office jobs. Meanwhile, journalists are losing their jobs to robots. So are paralegals and other professionals trained to do tasks that smart machines with a bit of learning can do a whole lot faster and cheaper.

Consider the pace of recent developments. In mid-December, Amazon said it had successfully concluded a trial run for its drone delivery service in Cambridge, England, with two innocuous items — a TV streaming stick and a bag of popcorn.

In early December, the company started to test an automated grocery store in Seattle, which uses what the company calls “just walk out technology”. This involves a combination of machine learning, sensors and artificial intelligence, the customer’s mobile phone and their existing Amazon account.

In October, a self-driving lorry outfitted by the San Francisco start-up Otto, which is owned by the taxi company Uber, made its first commercial delivery run in the US.

In September, Uber put 100 self-driving cars (albeit with a driver each for now) on the roads of Pittsburgh, making it the first city in the world where it is possible to hail such a revolutionary cab.

That’s a lot of change, occurring fairly rapidly, though it’s important to keep three caveats in mind. Plans for each of these technologies have been in the works for years. Most of them would face immense regulatory and liability hurdles before they became a commonplace of life. And there’s no guaranteeing the shape of the future. As a renowned physicist once said, prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.

Even so, there is some agreement about the rise of RobotEnomics, the name given to the march of the robot economy. In 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey, one of the world’s leading experts on automation, and Michael Osborne, who studies machine intelligence, published a study that practically warned of the broad developmental trends in the examples cited above and Amazon’s cashier-less grocery store besides. They considered the likelihood of computerisation in hundreds of jobs and found that nearly half of American workers had at-risk occupations. These included transport and logistics workers (taxi and lorry drivers), cashiers, telemarketers and accountants.

A World Bank study this year said that “from a technological standpoint, two-thirds of all jobs are susceptible to automation in the developing world”. However, it didn’t specify 2017 as the year of great disruption for countries such as India and China.

There, the change may come a bit slower than for the United States. In the world’s largest economy, the near future is expected to bring joblessness to at least half of its 3.5 million truckers and half of its roughly 800,000 UPS and FedEx commercial delivery workers.

This is bad news for America’s incoming president Donald Trump, who was elected on the promise of bringing back thousands of “good paying jobs”. And it raises questions about the right political formula to address a 21st-century problem that is actually not that new.

Two hundred years ago, the Luddites were protesting against machines in textile factories. In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes was coining the term “technological unemployment” for the human race and predicting 15-hour work weeks by the end of the 20th century.

In 1964, the writer Isaac Asimov predicted that one of the most pressing problems for humanity by 2014 would be boredom “in a society of enforced leisure”. In the same decade, John F Kennedy declared that America’s most important domestic challenge was to “maintain full employment at a time when automation … is replacing men”.

Some might say we are at much the same point today, so where’s the problem? If technology has made some jobs redundant over the years, it has also created new ones. Today, artificial intelligence companies, for instance, are said to be hiring poets to write dialogue for corporate chatbot and customer-service smart machines.

The difference, of course, is the pace and sheer scale of change. Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, recently pointed out that unlike before, every sector now uses computers and is susceptible to the charms of automation. Routine, unskilled workers, he says, would have to transition to jobs that are the complete opposite just to ensure a livelihood that cannot be stolen by a machine.

Unfortunately, there is little sign that any political leader, least of all Mr Trump who calls himself “the jobs president”, has a handle on the issue. During the election campaign, Mr Trump talked exclusively of resuscitating 1950s jobs — in coal mining and steel mills. The first is losing out to cleaner fuel; the second because it is increasingly technologically efficient and competitive enough to employ fewer Americans.

Perhaps the answer is not to fight the machine but to equip human beings to train it to serve appropriately.