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How to Survive the Automation Crisis

by Máté Hekfusz

Machines are coming for your job. What can you do about it?

In the past two centuries, industrial revolutions have brought quick and sweeping changes to technology in our society. The first marked the mass transition from hand production to machine work in factories. The second brought electricity, telegrams, and railroads. The third — dubbed the Digital Revolution — introduced digital electronics and today’s defining technologies: computers, mobile phones, and the Internet.

Arguably, we are still living in the third industrial revolution. The Internet continues to connect more people into one common network, while computers keep becoming faster and smarter. Yet, a fourth revolution seems to be already upon us, promising us exciting new developments like nanotechnology, quantum computing, and, what seems to be the most pressing and concerning of them all, automation.

The jury is still out on whether we are looking at an entirely new ‘revolution’ or if it is simply further advancement of the third. One thing is certain: the Digital Revolution changed the scope of everything that follows. The world is smaller and more connected than ever, with people, capital, and ideas flowing freely between countries. It took decades for steam power to spread from Great Britain to the rest of Europe during the first industrial revolution. Today, radical technologies can manifest everywhere almost immediately, abruptly changing the lives of millions of people.

Automation is one such ‘radical’ technology; after all, the first transition from hand-weaving to the power loom was also a form of automation, and machines have steadily taken on more and more tasks since. Sceptics to the danger of automation have used this argument as proof that there was no need to panic: the replacement of carriage drivers by cars or maids by vacuum cleaners has not utterly crippled the job market. New technology, they say, always creates new jobs, sometimes entirely new fields of work to make up for what is lost.

While this might be true, the problem still lies in the scale of these changes. In the near future, the impact of automation is expected to jump from linear to exponential: AI is getting smarter and more capable of taking over industries. Professional services firm PwC predicts that 7 million jobs will be lost in the next 20 years in the UK alone. They also say that just as many, if not more, will be created, but with a very uneven distribution, meaning that some industries will suffer much more than others. Those in manufacturing, transport, and public administration — the three worst-affected industries in the PwC report — have to think hardest about the future, while health workers, scientific, and IT professionals are predicted to enjoy growth.

There is a major disconnect here between the potential winners and losers of automation. A truck driver most likely cannot become a nurse on a whim, just as much as a bookkeeping clerk cannot easily transition into a software engineering job. While the overall number of jobs might stay relatively steady, there are still going to be millions of people around the world whose careers would be irreversibly automated.

If you want to avoid becoming ‘technologically unemployed’, there are studies and guides already available. Besides the list of most vulnerable jobs and industries, some are predicting the skills that will be in highest demand in the next decade. Unsurprisingly, attributes like ‘creativity’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ rank high on the list of skills — these distinctly human qualities are for now impossible for AI to master, and they may be the only edge humans will have once it becomes smart enough to handle easier-quantifiable aspects.

Not everyone wants to be an artist, however, or a programmer. There will be people who are neither willing nor capable to enter a new field that is still for humans, and governments around the world will have to deal with them. Right now, the biggest obstacle in front of companies is the high upfront cost of implementing automated systems. However, once these costs are incurred and the systems installed, they can start working right away without ever stopping, replacing every affected worker in a short order. If a major company decided to automate, it could mean the abrupt termination of thousands of employees. Even if all of them are willing to be retrained, the sheer scale of the disruption is bound to put a strain on states’ social safety nets.

What is the solution? No one knows, but many are theorizing. Universal basic income, the idea of giving every citizen periodic, no-strings-attached checks to counterbalance the disruption, is gaining traction worldwide. Others plan to discourage wholesale automation by introducing a ‘robot tax’. But while debates are raging, and governments are slowly waking up to the looming crisis, AI and automation technology keeps progressing at breakneck rates. The question is no longer about how to stall this progress, but about how to deal with the economic and social upheaval it is bound to bring.

Perhaps this is all in order: if we truly are on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, then there will be quick and sweeping changes. The difference is, these changes will affect everyone in the world, and they will affect them much sooner and in more unpredictable ways than before. A bright future is not guaranteed, and it will take everyone’s efforts to make sure that humanity as a whole can enjoy the fruits of the robots’ labour.

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