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The Future Of Human Work – Should We Be Afraid Of Software Bots?

When was the last time you used a travel agent to book a flight or bought a travel insurance? Life insurance rates?
Once upon a time, insurers relied upon actuarial tables structured and calculated by humans but that’s not the case anymore.
That’s what bots do now.

Human workers extinction

Whether you like it or not, your credit score is determined by an algorithm without taking into consideration any emotional life stories/circumstances. Back in the day, a human being had to decide if you were a worthy credit risk.
The best dance/pop hits you listen on the radio have been “composed” by software bots, perfectly mixing sounds which are easy to listen, catchy and affect our mood the way, the broadcasters/creators want us to feel.
This pleasant music heard in the supermarket isn’t there only to make us feel more relaxed – it’s mainly there to stimulate us to buy more.

Bots are wisely used in the aerospace industry. Commercial airliners are flown almost entirely by robot, save for take off and landing (and even the latter is mostly automated). In case you still haven’t noticed, there are a ton of jobs being performed today by algorithms that used to be done by humans. More are inevitably coming.

Speaking at economic think tank The American Enterprise Institute last month, Bill Gates said that within 20 years, a lot of jobs will go away, replaced by software bots (Gates called them “software substitution”).

He said:

“Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses… it’s progressing. Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. 20 years from now, labour demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

Gates also believes that the tax codes will need to change to encourage companies to hire employees, including, perhaps, eliminating income and payroll taxes altogether. He’s also not a big fan of raising the minimum wage, fearing that it will discourage employers from hiring workers in the very categories of jobs that are most threatened by automation.

Is technology eliminating jobs at a faster rate than they are being created?

Robots and computer assisted humans produce goods and services cheaper and more efficiently than humans alone. As Gutenberg and Printing Revolution contributed to sharp increase in human literacy, as in a capitalist system robots will win as the companies using technology will dominate in the marketplace. Only the most efficient and profitable companies survive and grow. Economists take the relationship between innovation and higher living standards for granted in part because they believe history justifies such a view. Industrialisation clearly led to enormous rises in incomes and living standards over the long run.
The world’s capital is flowing towards automation and away from investing in human labour simply because automation has a better ROI. This is the tipping point economically speaking and there is no return from it.

In January, the Economist ran a big profile naming over a dozen jobs sure to be taken over by robots in the next 20 years, including telemarketers, accountants and retail workers.
In other words, in any job involving forms processing, there’s less and less need for a human to be involved.

Is your work in danger?

Even newspapers like the LA Times are already using bots to ‘write’ stories involving sports results and financial reports. They are virtually indistinguishable from similar reports written by humans. Software algorithms such as these used at Summly (now Yahoo’s News Digest) intelligently choose the most important bits of a whole article, make sense of it and present much shorter essence of the news in no time.
In present engineering and technology business sense tells us that you do not have to replace the worker with technology. You simply have to make the worker more productive with it, using less workers in total while increasing economic production.
The robot and/or software works cooperatively with the worker.  Where there used to be 1M jobs, it reduced to 800k then 500k and so on, over time as technology advances. All the while the production of goods and services is rising with lower costs. When economic growth requires less people and jobs year after year you have an insurmountable problem.

Technology is a chief driver of growing wealth inequality in the the world. Technology has created a rich class of owners (the 5% that make and own the technology along with the minority that they employ) and an increasingly poorer class of workers scrambling for an ever decreasing number of low paying service jobs.

In Silicon Valley there is an elite relatively small economic class of ordinary citizens with a large amount of wealth derived solely from automation, also known as disruptive change, which is tech speak for doing more output with less workers.

Bill Gates @AEI on the Common Core, March 2015

Thinking, that productivity technology only impacts low paying jobs is false. Automation is first geared precisely towards high paying, high value jobs. That is where the money and profits reside for automation. Afraid?

Bill Gates is still the richest person in the world in part because he automated high paid office work with Microsoft office and email. Yes, accountants, business and finance people use excel as their primary language. What would take an accountant in the 1960’s a month to do can be done in less than an hour today. Most financial software automates jobs that accountants performed. (But these ‘professionals’ still use our distorted image of effort to charge premium for their services).

In fact, venture capital and invested corporate capital deliberately targets jobs and industries with the highest costs. It will likely take a 100 to maybe 200 years to completely replace most jobs with technology. It may never fully complete perhaps leaving 1% or 10% of the population having to perform needed tasks.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” ― Henry Ford

Despite the claims to the contrary it is different this time. We are not talking about horses, trains, assembly lines, etc. This time it’s about intelligent robots with advanced technology that learn quickly without limit in the end.  Robots are general purpose and will do any job better and faster as time marches on, so most human work can be automated with certainty given enough time. As new jobs are created they will be automated in short order as the training process only happens once for all robots. Unlike humans which have to be individually trained in costly manner, training one robot is effectively training all robots for all of time, as scalability occurs. Humans are inefficient in comparison, they die taking most if not all of their knowledge with them. (Not to mention all employees churning jobs once they get professionally qualified/certified).

Previous technological innovation has always delivered more long-run employment, not less. But this can change.

In America the real wage has hardly budged over the past four decades. Even in places like Britain and Germany, where employment is touching new highs, wages have been flat for a decade. Recent research suggests that this is because substituting capital for labour through automation is increasingly attractive; as a result owners of capital have captured ever more of the world’s income since the 1980s, while the share going to labour has fallen.

At the same time, even in relatively egalitarian places like Sweden, inequality among the employed has risen sharply, with the share going to the highest earners soaring. For those not in the elite, argues David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, much of modern labour consists of stultifying “bullshit jobs”—low- and mid-level screen-sitting that serves simply to occupy workers for whom the economy no longer has much use.

A 2013 paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, of the University of Oxford, argued that jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47% of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted. That includes accountancy, legal work, technical writing and a lot of other white-collar occupations.

What’s next?

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, professors at MIT, argue that like the first great era of industrialisation, it should deliver enormous benefits—but not without a period of disorienting and uncomfortable change. Their argument rests on an underappreciated aspect of the exponential growth in chip processing speed, memory capacity and other computer metrics: that the amount of progress computers will make in the next few years is always equal to the progress they have made since the very beginning. Those two professors reckon that the main bottleneck on innovation is the time it takes society to sort through the many combinations and permutations of new technologies and business models.

A startling progression of inventions seems to bear their thesis out. Ten years ago technologically minded economists pointed to driving cars in traffic as the sort of human accomplishment that computers were highly unlikely to master. Now Google cars are rolling round California driver-free no one doubts such concept is possible, though the speed at which fully self-driving cars will be fully market-ready, remains hard to guess.

Brave new world

The machines are not just cleverer, they also have access to far more data. The combination of big data and smart machines will take over some occupations wholesale; in others it will allow firms to do more with fewer workers. Text-mining programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies will be analysed more efficiently by image-processing software than lab technicians. Machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories.

Jobs that are not easily automated (such as these considered “creative”) may still be transformed. New data-processing technology could break “cognitive” jobs down into smaller and smaller tasks. As well as opening the way to eventual automation this could reduce the satisfaction from such work, just as the satisfaction of making things was reduced by deskilling and interchangeable parts in the 19th century.

Being newly able to do brain work will not stop computers from doing ever more formerly manual labour; it will make them better at it. The designers of the latest generation of industrial robots talk about their creations as helping workers rather than replacing them; but there is little doubt that the technology will be able to do a bit of both—probably more than a bit. A taxi driver will be a rarity in many places by the 2030s or 2040s. That sounds like bad news for journalists who rely on that most reliable source of local knowledge and prejudice—but will there be many journalists left to care? Will there be airline pilots? Or traffic cops? Or bankers? Or soldiers?

The productivity gains from future automation will be real, even if they mostly accrue to the owners of the machines. Some will be spent on goods and services—golf instructors, household help and so on—and most of the rest invested in firms that are seeking to expand and presumably hire more labour. Though inequality could soar in such a world, unemployment would not necessarily spike.

These jobs may look distinctly different from those they replace. Just as past mechanisation freed or forced workers into jobs requiring more cognitive dexterity, leaps in machine intelligence could create space for people to specialise in more emotive occupations, as yet unsuited to machines: a world of artists and therapists, love counsellors and yoga instructors.

Such emotional and relational work could be as critical to the future as metal-bashing was in the past, even if it gets little respect at first. Cultural norms change slowly. Manufacturing jobs are still often treated as “better”—in some vague, non-pecuniary way—than paper-pushing is.

The below video is an overview of jobs automation and I highly recommend watching it.

For more information, check Quora on this subject.

What do you think? Is your job endangered and if so, what do you do about it? If you think that you are not moving fast enough, we, at Amuse specialise in innovation consulting and implementing innovative technologies. We use competitive advantage of having our tech hub located in Poland (for quality and ROI purposes) and consulting operations in London, UK.
Let us find out how could we help your business be more tech savvy and innovative. 

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