I often write about new technology such as cognitive software like Siri or driverless cars. These types of innovations have the potential to make our lives easier, but there are going to be significant societal consequences to some of these innovations. Late last year Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a paper that predicts that about 47% of all current American jobs are at risk of being replaced by some form of automated computerized technology.
We have already been seeing this for many years. For example, in the telecom industry there used to be gigantic operator centers with rooms full of operators who helped people place calls. Those centers and those jobs have largely been eliminated through automation. But not all of the jobs that have been eliminated are so obvious. For example, modern accounting software like QuickBooks for small business and more complex software for larger businesses have displaced many accountants. Where a large company might have once had large rooms of accounts payable and accounts receivable personnel, these software systems have eliminated a significant portion of those staffs. And many small businesses perform their accounting functions today without an accountant.
Computerization has also wiped out entire industries and one can only imagine the numbers of jobs that were lost when iTunes largely replaced the music industry or NetFlix and Hulu have replaced video rental stores.
Automation has created some new jobs. For instance, looking at this video of an Amazon fulfillment center we can see that there a lot of people involved in moving packages quickly. But we also see a huge amount of automation and you know that Amazon is trying to figure out ways to automate the remaining functions in these warehouses. It’s not a big stretch to envision robots taking the places of the ‘pickers’ in that video.
Some of the innovations on the horizon have the potential to eliminate other large piles of people. Probably the most obvious technology with that potential is driverless cars. One can envision jobs like taxi drivers disappearing first, eventually followed by truck drivers. But there are other jobs that go along with this like many of the autobody shops that are in business to repair car accidents due to human poor driving. We have already seen Starbucks trialing an automated system that replaces baristas and I saw one of these automated systems in an airport last month. There is a huge boom right now in developing manufacturing robots and this are going to replace much of the manual labor in the manufacturing process. But this also will allow factories to return to America and bring at least some jobs back here.
But this study predicts a much wider range of jobs that are at risk. The real threat to jobs is going to be through the improvement of cognitive software. As an example, IBM’s Watson has been shown to be more accurate than nurses and doctors in diagnosing illnesses. We are now at the point where we can bring supercomputers into the normal workplace. I read four different articles this week about companies who are looking to peddle supercomputing as product. That kind of computing power could start to replace all sorts of white collar and middle management jobs.
The study predicts a huge range of jobs that computers can replace. They include such jobs as patent lawyers, paralegals, software engineers and financial advisors. In fact, the paper predicts that much of the functions in management, financial services, computer technology, education, legal and media can be replaced by cognitive software.
Economists have always predicted that there would always be new jobs created by modernization to replace the jobs that are lost. Certainly that is true to some extent because all of those jobs in the Amazon warehouse were not there before. But those jobs replace store clerks in the many stores that have lost sales to Amazon. The real worry, for me, is that the sheer number of jobs lost to automation will happen in such a short period of time that it will result in permanent unemployment for a large percentage of the population.
One job that the paper predicts will be replaced is technical writer. As a technical blogger I say “Watson, the game is afoot! IBM, bring it on.”