“Automation Anxiety” and Other Fears (Pt. II)

“Automation Anxiety”
and Other Fears
(Pt. II)

As discussed in the previous article, the 1960s proved to be a pivotal moment for conversations about automation in the workforce, but the best early example of periodic warnings about new technologies and automation began at the start of the century. Worried that many middle-class jobs would soon be wiped out, the Luddite movement of the early 19th century consisted of a group of English textile artisans who protested the automation of textile production and sought to destroy the machines.

Luddites wrecking a loom in 1812.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Disappearing Middle-Skill Jobs

Overlooking their slight penchant for destruction, the members of the Luddite movement had a valid concern over middle-class jobs with middle-skill tasks. Between 1959 and 1979, the employment share of service occupations (sales; office and administrative workers; production workers; operatives) was essentially flat, but since 1979, when middle-skill occupations accounted for 60% of employment, there has been a sharp trend reversal. In 2007, these four middle-skill occupations accounted for only 49% of employment, and in 2012, it dropped to 46%. These numbers imply that while machines have been substituting routine and codifiable tasks, they have also amplified the comparative advantage of workers in tasks requiring flexibility, judgement, and common sense. In other words, there has been an appreciation in the value of tasks that workers uniquely supply.

Ultimately, productivity growth gained by new technologies may indirectly raise the demand for manual, task-intensive occupations thanks to an increase in societal income. While some tasks in many current middle-skill jobs are susceptible to automation, there are still many middle-skill jobs that will continue to demand a mixture of tasks across the skill spectrum. The immersion of technology into the workforce will change the nature of many jobs, but it will not necessarily eliminate the jobs entirely. Future middle-skill jobs will be expected to combine routine technical tasks with sets of nonroutine tasks, the latter of which will provide workers with a comparative advantage. These nonroutine tasks could range from interpersonal interaction to flexibility, adaptability, and problem solving.

As automated technologies take over repetitive tasks, roles related to monitoring, licensing, and repairing the systems will be in great demand.
(Giuseppe R)

Jobs of the Future

In “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy”, a report published by the Office of President Obama, four main categories of jobs were highlighted as most likely to experience direct AI-driven growth in the future:

  1. Engagement
    • As automated and AI technologies begin to complete tasks on their own, humans will still be needed to actively engage with them throughout the process. In fact, there is a large swatch of AI tech that industry professionals refer to as “Augmented Intelligence”, which emphasizes its role in assisting and expanding productivity, rather than replacing human work. Generally speaking, demand for labor is expected to increase the most in areas where humans complement AI-automation technologies.

  2. Development
    • Especially crucial in the initial stages of AI is its development, which will require highly-skilled software developers and engineers to put the capacities into practical use. Since machines are nothing without data, there is also an expected increased demand for jobs in generating, collecting, and managing relevant data to feed into AI training processes. In addition, as new technologies grapple with more social complexities and moral dilemmas, those working in the liberal arts and social sciences may find their inputs on ethical evaluations and investigations on impact to be extremely valuable to society.

  3. Supervision
    • As automated technologies take over repetitive tasks, roles related to monitoring, licensing, and repairing the systems will be in great demand. In the example of Automated Vehicles, their regular testing, repair, and maintenance may expand the scope of mechanic and technician jobs. Overall, any real-time supervision involving morality, ethics, and social intelligence will have to be accomplished by humans, additionally to ensure that the programmed technology does not diverge from its originally-intended uses.

  4. Response to Paradigm Shifts
    • Paradigm shifts such as the introduction of Automated Vehicles onto roads will cause dramatic changes to the design of infrastructure and traffic laws. This will translate to a higher demand for urban planners and designers, who will be charged with reimagining the everyday travel landscape. Adjacent fields such as cybersecurity may also experience a demand for new occupations and more employment, as the demand increases for new methods of detecting fraudulent transactions and messages.

What’s next?

For now, the future of jobs seems a mixed bag. While the economic theory of scarcity should remain our foremost concern, as of now, the most prevalent looming concern for society may be an increasing inequality of income as more tasks become automated at lower costs, leaving profits to be split amongst fewer, more privileged workers. In any case, the invasion of automation has begun, and we can only stand to benefit from its widespread use, including the creation of new jobs and tasks, and the increased value of human intervention. As automated machines become capable of more tasks, the differences between the human mind and AI will become clearer. The messy, imperfect, inexplicable, and unprogrammed instincts that inspired us to turn to automation in the first place, will be the very traits to keep us relevant.

However, before any of these new technologies can be entirely integrated into society and into our lives, it is imperative that policymakers keep an eye on the market, ensuring that wealth is distributed relatively equally in the face of new jobs and industries. Policies will have a big role to play in the reshaping of our society, and the successful integration of machines into our lives will rely on these policies. The next article will cover how governing systems and policymakers can help oversee our transition into automation to ensure the right path for our future.

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