Are our jobs doomed? Report shows the potentially devastating effects of robots on the job market

And a few positive ones too

Published August 6, 2014 6:10PM (EDT)

Robot    (<a href=''>Ociacia</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
Robot (Ociacia via Shutterstock)

There may not be a consensus on the likelihood of a robot apocalypse. However there is less disagreement on the topic of robotics and artificial intelligence infiltrating the workforce. In fact in some ways it already has, and is trending towards greater automation of our world.

Amazon pushes forward with delivery drones. Google is moving ahead with self driving cars. Uber's CEO has already declared he'd love driverless cars to replace Uber drivers in the future. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Pew Research Internet Project looked into how artificial intelligence and robotics would disrupt the future job market by the year 2025. Pew canvassed thousands of technology experts:  1,896 responded. Their findings were mixed. Some saw the permeation of robots into the job force as a net positive. Others predicted utter decimation of employment as we understand it. They did however agree on a few aspects of the coming robot technology.

We have no crystal ball -- no window into the future -- but here are some thoughts from the leading experts on this technology:

The Question:

The Pew Research Internet Project asked the following question:

"The economic impact of robotic advances and AISelf-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?"

The result was a half and half split: 48 percent saw robots displacing more jobs than they create by 2025, and 52 percent don't believe that robots will displace more employment opportunities than they create.

The Good:

On the positive side, experts stated that technology has continuously changed (and upheaved) the workforce -- creating as many jobs as they displace -- and don't see why that should be any different with AI and robots.

Celia Pearce, an associate professor of digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told Pew:

“Although they certainly shift and disrupt the labor ecosystem, if you look at the total net effect, history does not bear out the myth that technology replaces people. First, people make technology, and since technology becomes obsolete at an increasingly accelerated pace, the need for people who make it will only grow; second, people are required to maintain technology—technology is notoriously poor at taking care of itself; third, people are also required to assist other people in using technology; and fourth, most technology requires new labor forms.”

The president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Rob Atkinson, stated:

“I don’t think that automation is advancing any more rapidly than it has been. But in any case, automation has never led to fewer jobs in the economy in the past and never will in the future, for the simple reason that automation lowers prices which increases demand for goods and services, which in turn creates jobs.”

The experts do however predict that jobs will shift. Yes, some sectors will be displaced, but others in entirely new -- and even completely unimaginable -- jobs will crop up in their place.

Charlie Firestone is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. Firestone explained to Pew:

“Certainly there will be disruption with current jobs and more importantly, job functions. In the 2025 scenario, new jobs will be created by the robotic advances, and new functions will be created in the white-collar jobs of today. That is, there will still be a need for certain intermediaries but their functions will adapt to the needs of the new technologies and services.”

Some experts also stated that there are just some sectors where human compassion, empathy, creativity and judgement will be irreplaceable.

A technical services lead for Q2 Learning, Valerie Bock, wrote:

“Robotic servants will likely be part of the domestic and industrial appliance landscape. But I think we’ll attempt, and then give up on, machines as caregivers. We aren’t going to find a replacement for the human touch any time soon.”

Herb Lin the chief scientist for the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, at the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies of Science, responded to the survey this way:

“Those areas in which human compassion is important will be less changed than those where compassion is less or not important.”

Political and sociological considerations are also predicted to stem the AI/robot takeover of jobs. Political policies, liability fears and others will save some human jobs.

William Schrader, who co-founded PSINet Inc. and is CEO of the company gave this apt example -- driverless cars -- of how policy will will mean slow adoption of robotic replacements:

“Let’s start by imagining self-driving vehicles eventually working flawlessly and inexpensively in 2025. In that case, you imagine why anyone would need taxi drivers in 2025? Or truck drivers? Or limo drivers? Or pilots? Or boat/ship captains? Whether you call these white- or blue-collar jobs, if self-driving vehicles become reliable then how could we still have these jobs? In fact, why would we drive to the grocery store to pick up fresh food? We can already place the order on the Internet, the store picks what we want and (in 2025) the automatic self-driving truck would make the delivery to our doorstep (in some fashion). If self-driving vehicles are working flawlessly, and they spread across the planet within the next 25 years, then people will eventually forget how to drive. It is a concept like “rolling down the window”, after these rolling machines were replaced with electric switches for the past twenty years. People will still need to go places, and they will say ‘I am going to drive over,’ but perhaps no one will drive. But, the answer is no. By 2025, society will not allow free roving self-driving vehicles. It will take longer to have society embrace this change. And job loss will be one of the major contributing factors to the slow adoption.”

The final piece of good news, which some predict, is that in 2025 technology might not have advanced far enough to displace that many jobs.

John Lazzaro is a visiting lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, and research specialist in computer science. His scientific answer explains why we might not have the technology to displace jobs by 2025:

“As an engineering community, we’ve been working on robotics and AI for a long time. The rationale behind today’s optimism is that with every process technology generation, Moore’s Law brings us closer to having enough computational resources to solve these problems well. The adult human brain has about 500 trillion synapses, but enough racks full of GPUs fabbed in the fully-scaled 5 nm CMOS process may be able to simulate the pattern recognition abilities of those synapses, at the right level of abstraction for solving engineering problems. This is the basic line of reasoning. I’m skeptical, because don’t think we will have identified the full complement of ideas yet to write the algorithms that would run on the GPU cluster…Someday I believe we’ll have those ideas. But 2025 feels too soon—it takes decades for fundamental ideas like quantum mechanics to be fully worked out by a research community, and so we would know it was coming by now if it were ready to deploy by 2025.”

Chris Donley the director of advanced networks and applications for CableLabs had an interesting prediction. Yes, we may have new technology, but it will not necessarily replace many jobs -- just what folks do for themselves:

“By 2025, no, I don’t think so. In this timeframe, I see robotics as primarily addressing convenience—allowing me to read a book while I commute to work, cleaning my house, or serving as a digital concierge. In this timeframe, robotics will primarily address things I would otherwise do myself, rather than pay other people to perform.”

The Bad:

Not every expert was optimistic. Many predicted that robotics will displace more jobs than they will create. Why? Because it is already underway.

Larry Gell is the founder and director of the International Agency for Economic Development (IAED). He points out that humans are the greatest cost to large corporations. Why wouldn't they cut them out?

“After 50+ years working for the heads of the world’s biggest corporations all over the globe—watching them cut costs every place starting with the biggest cost: PEOPLE; moving labor to cheapest markets, then replacing them as fast as possible with robots and automation—why would it stop? It will accelerate. Anything and everything that can be automated to replace humans will be done. You can bet on it!”

Another respondent to the survey, Mary Joyce, an Internet researcher and digital activism consultant was blunt with her reply:

“To the extent that human workers can be replaced by robots and algorithms, they will be. There’s no reason to believe that firms would behave in any other ways. And social forces, like unions, that would limit these actions, don’t have the strength to prevent these changes.”

And while the optimists contend that change like this has happened throughout history. Some experts are concerned about what jobs will be displaced, and predict that robotics and AI will impact previously "insulated" sectors faster than humans can retrain.

David Allen, who is an "academic and advocate engaged with the development of global Internet governance," according to Pew, admits that humans are generally able to adapt, but this time he believes that the changes will be too rapid for adjustment:

“The underlying, fundamental determinant is rate of change, between invention and the workforce. The last century plus has seen the most phenomenal acceleration in the rate of change for innovation. The rate seems likely to continue high. On the other hand, people change and adapt to these changes in the real world only with difficulty. If this is correct, then the rate of change in invention will continue to overwhelm the ability of people—in this case the workforce—to adjust to that change"

An Internet professional named Tom Folkes foresees automation replacing many different sectors including teachers and lawyers:

“We will shortly be able to replace low level information workers—these being teachers, lawyers and librarians. In the not distant future, taxi, bus, and truck drivers. Delivery and food workers will be replaced by 3D printing. The number of people required to develop these systems will be relatively small.”

With more technology infiltrating the workforce, experts also worry about greater chasms of inequality and the creation of a permanent underclass.

Robert Cannon, who according to Pew is an "Internet law and policy expert," responded to the survey explaining that more automation will reduce the middle class:

“During the Industrial Revolution, although Adam Smith will disagree, our economy has been based primarily on labor. The Industrial Revolution displaced labor from agriculture to the city—but the labor existed. Where there was work to be done, humans were the best “machines” to do the labor. The humans would be paid for their labor; the humans would then pay for goods produced by other people’s labor. As production became more efficient, labor continued but moved into non-essential vocations (where essential is food and shelter). In the future, that foundation of our economy—labor—will be gone. Humans will not be the best “machines” to get work done. What will be left? Capital (ownership) and creativity (human contribution), and perhaps competition (sports, other competitions of humans as we are keen on the realization of the best among us). This will be a massive displacement of the middle class. There will be an ownership class and there will be a poor class that works at a rate below what would economically justify bringing in automation.”

A media professor, Mark Johns, explained that robotics and AI in the workforce could create an "underclass":

“Many manufacturing and service jobs will be eliminated by intelligent agents in the next decade. Social problems associated with a growing 'underclass' will increase…The middle class will continue to shrink, and there will be a greater gap between the educated and tech-savvy ‘haves’ and the uneducated ‘have-nots’.”

Some take it even further to predict "social unrest" as a result of the income disparity.

According to Vytautas Butrimas, who Pew describes as "the chief adviser to a major government’s ministry," social unrest will have already arrived by 2025 as a result of a more automated workforce:

“Robotics and the assembly line have been with us for a long time. The jobs are still there but they now require more specialized training and skills. It seems there is a decline in general education while the elites continue to become more educated and more likely to get the high level jobs. The divide between the educated and less educated is growing wider. By 2025 we will have experienced our first major social unrest from this.”

Where the two groups agree:

The experts on both sides, according to Pew, did agree on several main points. First, our political and educational structures are not equipped to handle the technological shift in employment. They also predicted that a more robotic workforce would redefine what "work" is for humans and what constitutes a "job."

The future of jobs, however, the experts explained, is not absolute. We humans still have the ability to shape the path of robotics, Artificial Intelligence and employment.

"Increasingly we will see work places, institutions and societies debate the benefits of new technologies and these debates will include the social impacts of adoption," Ben Fuller from the International University of Management in Windhoek explained. "The important thing to remember is that we have a choice to adopt one hundred per cent, partially or not at all.”

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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