We long ago became accustomed to robots replacing human workers in factories (GM introduced the first robots in manufacturing in 1961). Although human workers were replaced, and some lost their jobs, the move was seen as a net gain since the work replaced was often times the most repetitive, physically demanding, and prone to accident. Significant developments have been made robot assistive technology in light manufacturing operations that pair workers with machines in an integrative manner to improve productivity. Much of the work currently being performed in China will yield to this technology.
Similar inroads have been made in agriculture. Within this decade significant numbers of migrant workers currently performing stoop labor or produce picking will replaced by robot technology which needs neither daylight nor rest to work efficiently.
But white-collar office workers engaged in professional services are off the hook, right? Not so much. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, explains that engineers will have completed the reverse engineering of the human brain within the next five years. When that happens (and even before) the shift toward machines processing complicated algorithms at fantastic speeds will push human workers out of jobs (primarily customer service, accounting, law, and human resources) in which the responses to customer/client queries can be derived from defined bodies of knowledge. Jobs will remain in key practice areas where the “how” (both highly variable and dynamic) is more important than the “what.”
While artificial intelligence is developing at a frightening rate, it has not yet reached the point where it can convey empathy in a fashion a human can recognize. Humans will need to fill roles demanding (or relying) on empathy until the technology develops. What lay on the other side is singularity, which Louis Delmonte, author of “The Artificial Intelligence Revolution” says will not necessarily a walk in the park.
Our current workplaces are not well designed for this dynamic. Our antique 1930’s era labor laws are entirely unsuited to the coming challenge. We are going to need to develop a robust set of practices if we are to avoid the workforce disruptions that dogged the advent of the age of industrialization. After all, it is the French laborers that gave us the word sabotage from their practice of throwing wooden soled shoes (sabot) into the gears of the machines replacing them.