The Future of Work… Complete with Robots

November 5, 2015 Nicole Klemp


In pop culture, robots have been portrayed as quirky sidekicks, heroes, villains, and everything in between. But the one constant in these vastly different portrayals is that they were created to do something for humans — and do it faster and better than humans can. Another common theme is that the robots end up developing human qualities, or become more powerful than their creators intended, wreaking havoc on our way of life.

I know you’re good people. I know you mean well. But you just didn’t think it through. — Ultron, Avengers: Age of Ultron

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes coined the term “technological unemployment,” which he defined as productivity outstripping labor growth. But according to a recent Forrester report, the media and others have put a new spin on Keynes’s theory, one that is intended to strike fear in the hearts of the working public: Robots will take your job.

Proponents of the technological unemployment argument claim that manual labor workers are already being displaced by automation, and will continue to be, as the capabilities of robots advance. And they say white-collar jobs are just as much at risk, as machine learning and competency continues to develop.

Automation takes jobs away — and creates new ones

Despite the popular narrative of a jobless future in a world run by artificial intelligence, research (and history) show there is nothing to fear. According to Forrester, “… the defining feature of jobs in 2025 will not be their replacement at the hands of automation technologies. Instead, businesses and society will negotiate a new relationship between humans and robots — one in which they will work together rather than be perfect substitutes for one another.”

In a 2012 Wired article, Kevin Kelly describes how the industrial revolution changed work in the early 19th century — when 70 percent of American workers lived and worked on a farm. Today, only one percent of those jobs exist; the rest have been replaced by automation. But with that automation came millions of new jobs in entirely new fields. Those displaced farmers moved on to factories, and helped build farm equipment, cars, and other industrial products. As our world advances, new jobs are created. The job you’ll be doing 20 years from now (assuming you haven’t yet retired) may not even exist today.

The Future of Work looks less like I, Robot and more like Big Hero 6

Instead of a world in which robots have come to realize their superiority and taken over, the future will likely be a bit more harmonious, with humans and robots coexisting in the workplace, and in our everyday lives. Automation will drive social and economic growth, with humans and our machine counterparts working side by side to achieve business goals. Forrester says there are many positive changes we can expect over the next few decades, including:

  • Self-driving cars Large cities that already heavily regulate traffic (like London and Rome) will ban all human-driven vehicles from their downtown areas by 2025.
  • More focus on security and risk expertise As company systems become more complex and automated, the risk of stolen customer data increases. There will also be the new risk of hackers hijacking robots in warehouses or retail stores. (Now that’s a PR nightmare.) Controlling these security threats will be a high priority and will require skilled professionals.
  • Robot management will be a new job skill — You’ve probably heard of IQ (intelligence quotient) and EQ (emotional intelligence), but the new acronym will be RQ (robotic intelligence quotient). Companies will look to hire professionals with experience in human-machine interactions.
  • Blue-collar workers will have job titles like Robot Maintenance Technician For jobs threatened by automation, job retraining programs will be available and will focus on professions supporting the new economy, like robot maintenance. For white-collar workers, programming skills will allow them to participate in extended software ecosystems for robots.
  • Manufacturing will require less low-skilled human labor — Highly automated manufacturing can be done closer to customers and with low transportation costs. Because of this, countries like India and China will have to evolve from their current growth strategies of providing low service and labor costs to countries like the U.S.
  • The gig economy will create higher taxes and less focus on employee benefits — As the gig economy expands, public policy will have to catch up. Due to the atomization of work, governments will have to step in to provide gig workers with access to things like health care, as they will have just-in-time jobs with no benefits.
  • Robots will be your friend. In the future, robots will become friends and caretakers to humans. (Think Rosie from The Jetsons, without the frilly apron.) Powerful voice-controlled agents — like Cortana and Google Now — meant to assist us with our daily lives, will become integrated into robots. 
  • There will be cultural backlash, but it won’t hold automation back — With every economic revolution there has been backlash, but it has never stopped industry from advancing. For businesses, communication will be key to keeping the peace. Change will be easier for people to accept if they feel new jobs are being created and value is being added for customers.

If you still have concerns about our future with robots, take comfort in the wise words of a young John Connor in Terminator 2: “The whole thing goes: The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”


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