The impact of automation on employment is finally making it into the news. It’s not a trending topic yet, but at least it’s no longer the “elephant in the room”. Although books like The End of Work (Rifkin) appeared as early as 2002, and online blogs have been warning about advanced technology for at least 5 years, automation and it’s effect on work has so far avoided the limelight.
In 2013, Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote about the rapid advances in computer technology—blaming recent sluggish employment growth on improved industrial automation, from the use of robotics on the factory floor to automated translation services.
“Even more ominous for workers,” he said, “the MIT academics foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as these powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.”
We read him, but we didn’t bite
Today, the voices are growing louder. Respected researchers like those at The Brookfield Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Toronto’s Ryerson University, say that the effects of automation have previously have been underestimated. No longer restricting the dangers to routine, manual jobs, this report warns:
“More than 40 per cent of the Canadian workforce is at high risk of being replaced by technology and computers in the next two decades….Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and advanced robotics now means that automation is moving into cognitive, non-routine tasks and occupations, such as driving and conducting job interviews.”
The report says the top five occupations—in terms of number of people employed in them— facing a high risk of automation are:
1. Retail salesperson.
2. Administrative assistant.
3. Food counter attendant.
5. Transport truck driver.
But wait. There’s (a lot) more.
Its becoming apparent that even they are far behind in their thinking. With the escalation of research into artificial intelligence moving at warp speed, scientists and writers are realizing that automation is cutting an ever wider swath into the job market, with job losses happening faster, and going deeper.
Referencing the Harvard Business Review, David Gershgom, author of the blog Quartz.com, wrote this post in January of this year, saying:
“Most of the attention around automation focuses on how factory robots and self-driving cars may fundamentally change our workforce, potentially eliminating millions of jobs. But AI that can handle knowledge-based, white-collar work are also becoming increasingly competent. One Japanese insurance company, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance, is reportedly replacing 34 human insurance claim workers with “IBM Watson Explorer,” starting by January 2017.”
A step in the right direction
So this week, when Canada’s 2017 Federal Budget came down in Parliament, I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that automation was included. I was pleased to hear in a newscast on CBC this week, that there will be increased spending on training of people who will be displaced by artificial intelligence. 1.2 Billion in fact—money that will be devoted to “skills and innovation”. Details have yet to be released, but I’m looking forward to hearing more in the weeks and months ahead.
Usually doubtful that governments can do effective long range planning, I was encouraged by this budgetary measure, and heartened to find more Canadian commentary on automation and jobs. A March 19 Canadian Press article, quoting Sunil Johal, a policy director with the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto says more:
“Many of the trends that may concern us about technology and automation in terms of what their impacts could be on workers are already happening and that’s, I think, the missing piece here. People are projecting this into, well, in 10 years we may be in a difficult situation. The reality is many Canadians are already ill-served by government policies when it comes to skills training, when it comes to employment insurance, when it comes to the broader suite of public services to support Canadians. Depending on the methodology used, the Canadian economy could lose between 1.5 million and 7.5 million jobs in the coming years due to automation.”
Here’s a link to a March 22 CBC interview with Johal.
I know automation is here to stay—and it will benefit mankind in ways we can’t foresee. We will eventually move beyond the problems of this transitory period. The first steps Canada has taken to address it are a start. But more needs to be done, not “down the road”, but right now. Here’s a list to start with:
Raise public awareness.
Step up the role of educational institutions.
Set up safety measures such as basic income, for workers in transition.
I’m a Grandmother and a Grand-aunt, and I care about future generations—and hope they can, just as we did, find purpose and prosperity in their productive years.