A new report has suggested that new technologies such as AI and robotics will destroy 6% of US jobs by 2021, and a good deal more after that date. Presumably, the UK will see a similar development. But it isn’t all bad news – indeed it doesn’t have to be bad news, at all.
According to economic theory, technology does not lead to unemployment – rather it creates new opportunities and in the vacuum that is left when some jobs are lost to technology, new jobs are created. So the agrarian revolution destroyed jobs in rural areas and people shifted to industry; the industrial revolution destroyed jobs in industry but new jobs were formed. Over the last few decades, information technology has destroyed jobs – the typing pool is an obvious example or telephone switchboard operators – but it has created new ones including IT experts, computer repair workers and now app developers.
There is one snag – and it is one that economic theory is very poor at taking into account. It takes time, while displaced workers wait for the next thing to emerge they can suffer – during the first few decades of the 19th century, the time of the industrial revolution, there is little evidence that median workers were better off, indeed army records from that time showed that average heights fell – surely a proxy for worse health or poorer diet.
Forester, which produced the report on jobs said: “By 2021, AI within intelligent agents will evolve significantly beyond today's relatively simple machine learning and natural language processing (NLP). . . Emerging applications will feature improved self-learning and more complex scenarios. As basic agents gain consumer adoption, next-generation AI will not power intelligent agents until 2020 or beyond."
It continued: “Broad business impact will happen as AI matures and customer analytics and marketing vendors improve their insight platform offerings.”
The jobs that will be lost in the short term will include those in the automotive industry, customer service, taxi and truck driving.
Looking beyond 2021, Forrester predicts a "disruptive tidal wave", as things begin to accelerate and technology has a more profound effect on the jobs market.
But somehow it all seems upside down.
Technology can create massive gains in efficiency, but if it destroys jobs, the economy may contract. And this, by the way, is the case for helicopter money, in the longer term, funding some kind of universal income.
But some jobs will be safer from new technology, and they are jobs we may need more and more of, as society ages.
Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford University produced a reported called The Future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation and released in 2014.
They said that the type of jobs most likely to be replaced by computers and robots are jobs involving manual dexterity, finger dexterity, and working in cramped spaces. They say jobs that involve a high level of social intelligence are less likely to be disrupted. Occupations that are likely to be safer include those which involve developing ideas, originality, negotiation, social perceptiveness, and assisting or caring for others.
They are very specific too. They suggest that the type of job that is most likely to be done by machines is telemarketing. Other jobs that sit high in their list of occupations they identify as likely to be replaced by technology include insurance appraisers, insurance underwriters, and tax preparers. On the other hand, occupational therapists, mental health counsellors, healthcare social workers and teachers seem quite safe from disruption.
As for timing, they say that in 2030 the types of jobs that are least at risk from technology will be jobs that involve social intelligence, creativity or working in a complex and unstructured environment, including choreographers, physicians and surgeons, and podiatrists.