Middle class workers are losing their jobs to robots

Middle class workers are losing their jobs to robots

By Meredith Placko May. 8, 2016

Middle class workers are losing their jobs to robots

It’s a headline that is all too familiar these days. As the world of automation grows and workers are being replaced by robots in factories, farming, and even food service – the concern of what to do with this displaced workforce is becoming a leading topic among economists as well as world and business leaders.

Many of these very learned men and women were among those talking about just that, this past week in Beverly Hills, California at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference. This elite think tank invites some of the most well respected and most powerful people to gather together for four days to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. This year’s theme was “The Future of Human Kind.” It was fitting that a lot of the conversations steered towards robots, automation, artificial intelligence, and the growing role it is playing in the world of industry and the office.

Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, was on hand to share his doom and gloom predictions of the not so distant future of when not robots, but algorithms and technology advance to a point that there is no need for the average, middle class worker.

Think about data processing, machines essentially do it for us already. Accounting? Nursing? We have systems programming, MIS departments, teams of people who watch over the machines now, for sure – but how much longer until they run themselves? Deep learning and artificial intelligence is breaking new grounds everyday. In fact, you could say some of the brightest minds are now working towards creating a future in which robots run everything for us.

And companies are okay with this. In fact, they want it.

Lyft announced that they have partnered with GM to create a fleet of self driving cars as early as 2017. After the recession hit, and people flocked to gig-based ways to earn extra income, one of the more popular routes was becoming drivers for services such as Lyft and Uber. Now those very companies are looking for ways to automate the process and remove the drive all together. Now the fares collected will go directly into the company’s pockets.

Even the government is worried about the future of robots and our economy. Earlier this year, the Economic Report of the President was published, which includes a very dire prediction: there is an 83% chance that workers who earn $20 an hour or less could have their jobs replaced by robots in the future. Those in the $40 an hour pay range face a 31% chance of having their jobs taken over by the machines.

It’s a grim outlook for lower and middle class citizens.

As robots, and more precisely artificial intelligence, grow to replace repetitive workflow, what will happen to the workforce that was once occupying those jobs? Will this sink us deeper into a recession? Will our unemployment rate continue to skyrocket?

During the AI: Friend or Foe? panel at the Global Conference, IBM’s VP of Cognitive Computing Guruduth Banavar said the “technological progress is going to improve the quality of life.” He cited the many industrial revolutions that have taken place throughout the last two centuries as a prime example of when one set of jobs went away, a whole new industry of jobs opened up to take its place.

When machines first began to replace farm workers some 250 years ago, people turned to the cities and the factories to find new work. When those industries were paired down by automation, you still needed skilled workers to run and program those machines. Of course, the fear with AI is that these robots will just be able to teach themselves. Banavar believes otherwise.

“I want to look at every job as a set of tasks. When you look at all the professions we have… and you look at all the tasks that each of those professions do, as they go through educational journeys through their lives, there’s just a massive number of tasks. And some of those tasks are going to be much better done by machines than humans. And some of those tasks are going to be much better done by humans than machines.”

It’s about asset management. Why pay a person to sift through hundreds pf pages of data per hour when a machine can do it in minutes. But on the same side, that program is only capable of sorting said data so far. You still need humans to interpret that data in a meaningful way that is relevant to the business at hand, such as what exactly does it mean when you lose 30% of your sales in the first quarter? Was it due to misused advertising? Bad branding? A machine can’t write a great campaign or tell you how best to run your social media for your company, not yet anyway.

There will also always be the need for creators. There’s an idea floating out there among some economists that would save us all from when the robots come to take our jobs. It’s called the U.B.I. – Universal Basic Income. Basically everyone is given a minimum living expense to cover housing, food, and healthcare, and anyone who wishes to succeed above just simply existing would have the chance to do so. It would promote thinkers, tinkerers, and idea makers to continue in higher education, and become the global leaders who bring about the next best age for our world. Some do see it as a step towards true Utopia, and not some dystopian future where the very few sit atop the billions of poor.

But in a government that couldn’t even agree on a spending bill, which resulted in a shut down; and considering how half the elected officials treat welfare and subsidies, the chances of a guaranteed minimum income is more of a far fetched futuristic idea than the notion of robots taking over our workforce.

At some point though, something will have to give. And hopefully the great minds behind these algorithms and AIs have a plan in place to not only save themselves, but to save the rest of us when that time comes.

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