As a result of automation and robot technology, a lot of the labour market has been replaced by faster and cheaper “workers”. But as technology continues to evolve, does this mean we’ll all be out of jobs in 2040?
If we look back at history, from the start of human civilization up until the industrial revolution, most people were pretty much farmers. But in today’s America, just less than 2% of the population is directly employed in agriculture – despite us producing much more food than ever.
This is because technology has allowed us to maintain crops and livestock with relative ease – less people are needed as technology does more of the work.
But then why don’t we see lines of angry farmers, with no jobs, all over the world? Thanks to the effects of technology, these people can become something else, like pilots, computer engineers or writers.
From our trip down memory lane, we’ve seen that technology has taken away a job from 98% of the population – and this trend will continue, at an accelerating pace. Consider Amazon’s Kiva robots – these machines are much faster, cheaper and more efficient than humans at sorting inventory in a mammoth warehouse.
But it’s not just jobs with a lot of physical work being replaced. Computer programs and software have replaced many tax accountants, being once again cheaper, faster and more efficient than humans at sorting through financial data.
And there is much more still to come. Imagine the impact automated transport and self-driving vehicles will have on taxi drivers and truckers. Truth is anything that we can do, robots can generally do better.
So what happens next then? Do we all get forced out of work by robots? Or will technology allow us to create more jobs than replaced?
An uncertain future
In 2014, the Pew Research Centre asked almost 2,000 experts in fields such economics, artificial intelligence, robotics, what impact automation would have on the economy by 2025. The results were practically split down the middle.
48% of respondents said that technology would have a net negative impact – the economy would take a hit and unemployment will rise. Whilst 52% had a net positive outcome – more new skilled, higher paid jobs be created, and goods and services will get better whilst get much cheaper.
This backs up what we already know, that with technology you are always going to get good and bad consequences.
On one hand, human workers are going to get replaced by robots. And the unemployed won’t always be able to train fast enough to find a new job straightaway. But on the other hand, we’ll have access to high quality goods and services, like healthcare. And we’ll create new jobs that need new skills and offer better pay.
Amongst the most optimistic of futurists, they envision a world where technology creates all of our good and services, leading to an age without scarcity. We won’t need to buy anything because robots will provide everything, for everyone.
Time to adapt
But we have to stay grounded here. On the way to this kind of future there will be a transitional period for society, where we have to learn to live with robots. This is something we need to start planning for, to minimise the temporary costs of technological impact.
It would seem that jobs that are simple and repetitive – those that can be written as a list of instructions – are likely to be replaced earlier than jobs that require more creativity and thinking. Whilst machines are good at productive tasks, producing things in a given time period, they’re not so good at creative tasks, like entrepreneurship and innovation.
This could lead to a world where people are rewarded less for productive jobs, and more for creativity, innovation and great ideas.
So what should you do when robots replace our current jobs? Accept that robots will be better, that’s what human designed them for, and find a way to work with them and how to make them work better for us.