Automation, jobs, and digital literacy signal new urgency

Louis Arias

You started your first job only a few days ago. You arrive at your office, log into your desktop and hear the already familiar sound of its engine moving closer.

You know it will stop at your workspace, greet you by name and bring your coffee, just the way you like it: three creams, two sugars. Interaction between humans and robots was once in the realm of science fiction. No longer.

Cobots are robots intended to interact physically with humans in shared workspaces. They have been around since 1996, but artificial intelligence has made them smarter and therefore, no longer confined to behind-the-scenes manual labor like automobile manufacturing and warehousing. These bots have no humans guiding them and they are very good at what they do.

Anindya Paul, Chair, of DSC’s School of Computer Science, regarding the impact that Artificial Technology and Artificial Intelligence will have on the job market for programmers said:  “New technologies always change things.  Some jobs will be lost because AI can do them more economically and better, but new jobs will be created for people who now will have to take care of AI. Old jobs go away and new ones are created.”

Yet a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center titled “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs,” shows that out of 2,000 experts surveyed, nearly half believed that by 2025 automation will have eliminated more jobs than it will have created.

According to another study by MGI Research on automation, based on existing technologies 60 percent of all occupations have at least 30 percent of activities that are automatable using technology.  Most occupations will change and more people will require technology to do their jobs.

Workers who are highly skilled in technology, however, will come out ahead while workers with lower technology skills will suffer. A McKinsey survey in France, the United Kingdom and the United States found that medium and low-skill workers, across all age groups, fare worse than those with a college education.

Technological disruption of the workplace goes beyond automation.

The working world is in a state of flux and shifts in the way people work create a nervous mix of potential benefits and dire uncertainty. Digital talent platforms like Upwork, Uber and Etsy are challenging conventional ideas about work by offering a growing number of independent workers new options to market their skills. Many employers complain that they cannot find enough workers with the skills they need. Part of the problem can be traced to a failure of educational systems in keeping up with the pace of workplace changes, yet some of it can be attributed to a geographical mismatch of demand for work and qualified workers.

Unfortunately, migrations to fill these gaps create tensions with medium and low-skill workers.

During an open forum at Orlando’s Wordcamp 2017 — Central Florida’s annual WordPress developers conference —  Mike Demo, Web-evangelist for Boldgrid brought up a subject relevant to the future of work when he said,  “The next billion new Internet users, who will only have cheap mobile devices or slow 56K modems will impact everything in a way that we are now trying to understand.”

In Google’s push to bring close to a billion Indians to the Internet, it has added 9 Indian languages to work on their new AI-enabled Google Translate. The Ericson Mobility Report released in June estimates that over 1 million new mobile device users will be added daily for the next five years.

Mobile technology fuels economic growth and has created innovations in the mobile space such as deep linking, application streaming and self-service data driven mobile aps. It’s anybody’s guess how this infusion of new technologies and the sheer number of geographically diverse new users will affect factors such as the structure of the workday, skill requirements, co-worker interaction or the physical design of the workspace.

One thing is clear. As billions of people are added to the digital economy, assets, operations and the workforce will become digitized because its main impediment will be vanishing. In highly vs. less digitized corporations, profits and margins can increase three times as fast on the highly digitized side, while their workers enjoy double the wage growth. Professionals who are fluent in the language of technology have the edge.

Ignorance is not bliss. People accustomed to horses and carriages probably felt weird when they saw the first automobiles. The practical limit of a horse-drawn wagon was 10 to 15 miles. Soon after they could actually imagine going anywhere they wanted, anytime they wanted to. They never imagined how a machine would change them.

Now cobots feel just as weird. Intelligent machines will change the workplace. The real question is: how will they change us?

Technologies for horse driven wagons fell to the wayside when automobiles changed the world.

Australian worker showing patented composite wheel circa 1898-1945
Australian worker showing patented composite wheel circa 1898-1945

(Workman_posed_ with_Noak…  is an Australian image of Wikimedia Commons that is copyright free)