Robots: here, there and everywhere

Illustration by Jon Berkeley

Despite the continuous debate about the effects of technical progress over employment, the prevalent academic and economic views, until recently, considered technological evolution as a benign process. Technology was perceived as an element which would ultimately create more jobs. This seems to be changing.

Today, a considerable number of economists and academics are starting to believe we have entered a period in which not only will the number of jobs decline, but the kind of plunge will change: repetitive and unskilled tasks will no longer be the only ones affected. Larry Summers, Harvard professor and former US Treasury Secretary, outlined this view by saying that the main problem in the future of humankind will not be manufacturing enough goods but creating enough jobs for all.

At first, automation hit the agricultural and manufacturing sectors the hardest. Now, however, the service sector is starting to take the blows of a process that will only get more aggressive in the years to come. In the next 20 to 30 years, cab, bus and truck drivers will most likely be deemed redundant due to the popularization of autonomous vehicles (as we previously discussed here).

Commercial facilities will no longer need cashiers, for clients’ bank accounts will be charged by simply leaving the premises with goods. Just recently, Amazon opened a brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, called Amazon Go, where this is already a reality. Through integrated computer vision systems and sensors, it is possible to monitor the items placed in trolleys and selected by shoppers. On entering the store, each client is duly identified through a mobile phone app.

By contacting a call center or interacting via chat with a support agent, we will also be dealing with machines. Through the application of Artificial Intelligence techniques, these bots are put to use after they “learn” how to deal with common requests and, over time, gather experience and flexibility. There are several cases in which these entities are already interacting with us without our knowledge.

But the changes do not stop there. Other tasks with reasonable degrees of sophistication are already being performed by machines showing promising results: text translation, contract drafting, image analysis, accounting, and financial advising, to name a few. And there is no doubt there are many more to come.

Despite the possibilities of new jobs that will be created due to the very implementation and development of a series of disruptive technologies in the next decades, the fact remains that the labor market is going through a massive shift. In his 2015 book, Rise of the Robots, North American writer Martin Ford argues that the impact of the automation trend on both simple and complex tasks will potentially create a deflationary spiral: with a shrinking job market, consumers will feel unsure about spending money. According to several economists and even some technology industry professionals, the solution is the creation of government programs to provide a basic income to most part of the population. This proposition must be carefully thought through due to the profound impacts on individuals, businesses and society in general. And this will be our topic for next week. See you then.