Monday, 3 February 2014

Technology and work

I just finished reading an article about the impact of technology on employment – specifically occupations we can expect to be automated or replaced by technology in the next ten to twenty years. The article references a 2013 academic paper that predicts 47% of total employment in the United States is at risk of being replaced by machines or software. (You can link to the paper from the article.)

In terms of machines doing work that was historically done by humans, technology so far has had the greatest impact in the areas of manufacturing and office administration, and on work that is routine and rule based. However, with breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence, tasks which were once assumed as requiring humans to perform are starting to be done by computers. The author of the article cites Google’s self-driving cars as an example: “Even ten years ago, many engineers said it was impossible. Navigating a crowded street isn’t mindlessly routine. It needs a deft combination of special awareness, soft focus, and constant anticipation—skills that are quintessentially human.”

The article is interesting but paints a rather ominous picture of the future, in particular how much and the kind of work that will be left for humans to do and from which to make a living. It ends with the comment: “It would be anxious enough if we knew exactly which jobs are next in line for automation. The truth is scarier. We don’t really have a clue.” An interesting way to end the article given that it is based on a 72-page research paper (which I’ve started but haven’t finished reading yet) that examined over 700 hundred occupations, details the methodology used to determine how susceptible those occupations are to automation and even includes a list of most likely (99 percent chance) to be automated jobs, as well as a list of least likely to be automated jobs, which is reprinted in the article. “We don’t really have a clue”? Hmmm.

There is no denying the impact that technology has had on work – it has resulted in the deskilling of some jobs, the virtual elimination of other jobs and the displacement of workers. It has also created new occupations, which the author of the article barely touches on. But my main critique of the article is that it presents the automation of work and the impacts as a natural process, as a fait accompli. As human beings, we can make decisions about these things, individual and, perhaps more importantly, collectively.

Most likely to be automated:
- Telemarketers
- Title examiners
- Sewers
- Mathematical technicians
- Insurance underwriters
- Watch repairers
- Cargo and freight agents
- Tax preparers
- Photographic process workers
- New accounts clerks
- Library technicians
- Data entry keyers

Least likely to be automated:
- First-line supervisors: fire fighters
- Oral surgeons
- Healthcare social workers
- Prosthetists
- Occupational therapists
- Audiologists
- Mental-health social workers
- Emergency management directors
- First-line supervisors: mechanics
- Recreational therapists

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