They took our jobs! How to prepare for the ‘second machine age’

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Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brushed off questions about automation, claiming AI wouldn’t truly impact jobs in the United States for another 50 or 100 years. “As it relates to artificial intelligence taking over American jobs,” he said, “I think we’re so far away from that it’s not even on my radar screen.”

It was a strange thing to say, and worrying for anyone who’s even remotely aware of emerging tech.

A Ball State study from 2015 blamed robots and AI for around 87 percent of U.S. job loss between 2000 and 2010. 38 percent of American jobs may be at risk by the 2030s, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, and 35 percent in Germany, 30 percent in the United Kingdom, and 21 percent in Japan may face a similar fate. The Executive Office of the President even compiled a 55-page report titled Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, which outlined the impact of the technologies on the job market and warned that millions of workers may be displaced.

Mnuchin must have missed the evidence (or simply not read it), so it’s no big surprise that a recent 184-page report by an expert panel made up of researchers from MIT and Carnegie Mellon concluded, “[Policymakers] are flying blind into what has been called the fourth industrial revolution or the second machine age.”

The topic of automation is terribly unsexy and the facts are pretty ugly, so it’s easy to look away and pretend they don’t exist. It’s even easier to point to other causes of American job loss and make those the talking points. But AI is advancing at a breakneck pace, robots are becoming increasingly more competent at human tasks, and many of us may be out of a job sooner than we can react.

What’s at risk?

Last December, a manager at Apple’s supplier FOXXCON shared his company’s plan to lay off thousands of factory workers while making their tasks automated. And although the boss’s job is safer than the little guy’s, automation comes in all shapes and sizes. Orange KUKA industrial robots — the poster children of the second machine age — are the most obvious examples. But they aren’t the only ones, and they probably won’t have the biggest impact.

In the next couple of decades, AI will impact every occupation, automating tasks for accountants, attorneys, and journalists.

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Trucking will probably be the first job to go, as more and more autonomous vehicles hit the roads in the coming years. Taxi cab drivers may soon follow. Between 2.2 and 3.1 million existing jobs are threatened by self-driving systems, according to White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Between 2.2 and 3.1 million existing jobs are threatened by self-driving systems.

For years now, hotels have used robots to deliver room orders and fresh towels to guests, while Silicon Valley firms have invested in robot security guards. Physical robots like this are definitely more visible evidence of automation’s impact on the service industry, but invisible, conversational computer programs will have one of the most sweeping impacts. Gartner predicts that chatbots will automate over 85 percent of interactions between customers and companies by 2020. In the not-so-distant future,  the chance to get a human operator on the line may no longer exist.

A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute painted a more optimistic picture, suggesting new tech will transform jobs rather than eliminate them entirely.  According to the report, only five percent of jobs could be completely automated with today’s technologies, but 45 percent of all individual activities –things like checking email, taking calls, and filing paperwork– could be automated by current technologies. “The right way to look at automation is at the level of individual activities, not entire jobs,” said McKinsey Partner Michael Chui.

Why it’s such a problem?

In some ways, automation is a blessing since machines will take over many of the tasks we’d rather not do anyway, while AI alone could double annual economic growth rates for some countries by 2035, according to analysts at Accenture.

But overall economic gain won’t necessarily trickle down to the individual. Although emerging tech will create some new jobs, even conservative estimates project that automation tech will put billions of people out of work, while potentially creating even more economic inequality.

The Obama Administration’s automation review refers to superstar-biased technological change. “Rather than everyone receiving at least some of the benefit,” the council explained, “the vast majority of that value will go to a very small portion of the population.” Without careful preparation, scenarios like this are bound to occur.

What can be done?

Short of a Butlerian Jihad, there are a few ways we can respond to automation. Some people – like Elon Musk — call for augmenting human beings to compete with machines. Others say a universal basic income is necessary to maintain a society with an acceptable standard of living. Although some countries are experimenting with basic income, both of these solutions are still a long way off. There are, however, things that we can do, right now, to help alleviate these problems.

For starters, the education system will need to consider a shift from training students for professions to teaching skills suitable for a constantly changing work environment.

“I try to be optimistic because I do think there are some valuable roles that humans can still play

“I would try to develop complex social interaction skills and leadership, artistic and scientific interests, creativity, and in general a mind set out to solve complex problems and be flexible, a mind that likes to learn constantly,” said Rodica Damian, whose recent study showed that personality traits, such as extraversion and interests, could be used to predict whether someone will select an easily automated job. “I would also try to target people’s openness to experience and flexibility, and an understanding that in the future job requirements might change so quickly that people will have to be open to flexibly switch tasks and learn new skills constantly.”

The transition will be more difficult for people already in the workforce, like truckers who’ve specialized in skills that aren’t easily transferred to other professions. Experts like Tom Davenport, co-author of Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, suggest that workers focus on developing skills that can’t easily be replicated by machines, such as creativity and high-level social skills.

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“I try to be optimistic,” Davenport said, “because I do think there are some valuable roles that humans can still play relative to these smart machines, but I don’t think it’s a time to be complacent about it. Any type of worker will need to work hard to keep up the right kinds of skills and develop new skills.”

And, although AI is off Mnuchin’s radar, the government will need to begin preparing now for a fast approaching future. In the expert panel’s 184-report, researchers suggested that governments develop a sort of AI index to monitor how these emerging technologies are developing. “A comprehensive index of AI would provide objective data on the pace and breadth of developments,” wrote panel co-chairmen Tom Mitchell and Erik Brynjolfsson.

Automation may indeed lead to the end of work, for better or worse. Better because we’ll have more free time; worse because it could lead to more inequality. Regardless, it’s vital that the future workforce, educators, employers, and policymakers acknowledge the facts and prepare accordingly.

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