The Robots are Coming

robots are coming automationNever mind zombies eating your flesh and taking over, a majority of Americans believe that robots and general technological automation will replace humans in many posts throughout the economy within the next 50 years. We can certainly see throughout history that there have been reductions or eliminations of human participation in certain roles, including the telephone switch operator and numerous factory assembly positions from glass to automobile production. Households used to have ice delivered to them in blocks cut out of the insides of caves and delivered by truck. Yet, curiously enough, most (a full 80% of respondents) don’t believe their own jobs in their current form are necessarily at risk. Aside from the irony of this, there’s the matter of what the PEW Research Center study ultimately causes us to wonder, and what articles written about the study couldn’t help asking out loud the following: Will most humans one day simply be “out of work”? Well, perhaps.

Before we get to that issue, it’s worth noting some other takeaways, including that younger respondents are more likely than older respondents to believe that their jobs in their current state will continue to exist 50 years from now. Really? That seems strange, and frankly, like misplaced confidence. One should probably go with the older folks on this one – call it more experience and wisdom developed over a longer period of time, and higher probability that the older respondents had already been in such a situation over the course of their working lives. Resistance to the idea of a completely algorithmic future also seemed to depend on economic sector, i.e. those in non-profit, government and education were more confident their jobs would avoid conversion. Blue collar workers were also more confident than pink and white collared ones. Finally, those with college (or higher) educations and higher household income threw their hats in for the humans.

Well, it’s interesting to muse over the role of robots and automation in the past, present and future. Air Force pilots fly drones with joysticks from secure locations. Driverless cars have already made long road trips (although still under human supervision) while Japan is currently testing driverless taxis. And as for going to H&R block to have your taxes prepared for you, well, let’s face it, now we have TurboTax. Yet, it’s another thing entirely to believe that automation and robots are going to replace us entirely. The labor force continues to change in terms of the employment composition it is collectively dedicated to, so while jobs may change hands, we’re not necessarily looking at a Terminator future. People may just find new jobs that haven’t even been created yet.

What would help us argue the for and the against? Is there anything that would provide us with a clue as to whether we were really being or were going to be replaced, that this has been and will be a reality? One would think that if robots and automation were truly going to replace us in our professions on a wide scale, then the unemployment rate should and would grow over time. Thus far, that hasn’t really happened. The data just doesn’t (currently) reflect that.

However, in support of the argument that we are and will be outright replaced, some might say that automation seems to be accelerating, so much so that over the next 50 years automation will replace human labor activity exponentially more than over the last 50 or more years, particularly because of AI. Additionally, the baby boomer generation is retiring, which could mask the impact of automation on the human employment rate as they leave the workforce altogether. And what about the types of jobs those baby boomers are retiring from, versus the types of jobs those in the workforce still have? Is it not safe to assume that in at least certain cases, retirement and automation are coinciding factors in masking the full impact of automation on human employment?

At any rate, if we’re concerned about tracking our own replacement in the workforce, the two rates mentioned above can be used, those being the unemployment rate and the rate of automation, accounting for certain variables. Otherwise, the safe conclusion to the debate over whether humans are about to receive a lot of pink slips over the next 50 years is still, “perhaps”, that really only time will tell. And don’t you creative types think for a minute that you’re safe from the robot onslaught. After all, robots have already been making music for over 30 years and just keep becoming more proficient at it. What should always help preserve one’s viability and utility in the labor force is a mix of adaptability, willingness to learn new things and knowledge specialization in more than one area or field. Concentrate on that and forget the rest. After all, you’ve got 50 years (give or take)!