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The human truth behind automation and jobs

I, Robot and Ex Machina have given us a healthy fear of robotics, but the worldwide conversation about automation and jobs hasn’t just been sparked by Hollywood. There are real numbers showing the growth of automation and its impact on the human workforce. Despite major publications urging the population not to panic and jump to conclusions about a jobless future, the rise of Internet of Things (IoT) and automation technology has caused some people to fear we’re already losing jobs to automation and robots. IDG research predicts that we’re standing on the edge of a massive transformation spurred by these emerging accelerators. The Talented Mr. Robot: The Impact of Automation on Canada’s Workforce report states that nearly 42 percent of the Canadian labour force is at a high risk of being negatively affected by automation through technology and computerization in the future.

While some invite us to welcome the machines, even tech-lover and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has expressed his concerns about the impact of automation on the human race: “Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower,” particularly for less skilled workers.

Is the fear of mass job loss unfounded, or are we truly seeing the beginning of the end for the human workforce? To understand whether the robotics menace is hype or reality, we took a look at the current data on automation and jobs.

Tracking real-life automation data

It would be stupid (and downright false) to state that jobs are not currently subject to automation. Automatic teller machines have replaced bank tellers for simple transactions, and Wendy’s is only one of several fast-food chains that intend to put ordering kiosk technology in thousands of restaurants—all due to human wage pressures.

Despite what we see in news headlines, most available data on the impact of automation is largely speculative and forward-looking. Authors and MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee highlight existing economic data in their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in an Age of Brilliant Technologies, which suggests that white collar jobs have been “displaced,” not “replaced.”

Tech CEO Peter Reinhert calls the current state of automation in tech as a trend toward “software layers” that are sandwiched between humans (think of Uber’s ability to match customers with service providers). However, drilling down on certain micro industries where technology has resulted in significant disruption supports Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s research. Despite the soaring popularity of TurboTax and other consumer products for tech-driven income tax preparation (not to mention the sheer magnitude of dread generally felt around tax season), as of 2014, the percentage of returns prepared by humans had not decreased.

Keeping an eye on the future of robotics

There’s no shortage of studies that predict doom and gloom surrounding automation and jobs, despite the sheer lack of current evidence to support a jobless future. One speculative study suggested a loss of 7.1 million jobs in the world’s richest countries, with a gain of 2.1 new opportunities, primarily in the tech and professional services fields.

If this reality comes to pass, will low-wage workers be affected the most? McKinsey predicts the reality will be more complex: Positions that require creativity and sensing emotion are more difficult to automate, which account for a collective of only 33 percent of jobs in the Canadian economy. With current technology, this research suggests that 45 percent of tasks currently performed by humans can be fully automated.

It’s impossible to predict the future, but we can assume that reality will be subtler. Artificial intelligence lacks emotional intelligence, not to mention the business context that drives day-to-day decision-making. It’s most probable that, in the future, humans and algorithms will work side by side.

While Google is just one example of an organization using AI to remove human biases in the hiring process, this tech hasn’t replaced human human resources in their recruitment and promotion processes. Automation in its current state has the potential to significantly improve, but not replace, human decision-making.