Photo via Flickr user Ben Husmann
You know that feeling when you walk into your office and discover that there's a robot sitting at your desk doing your job? No? Neither do most Americans, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center released on Thursday. Two-thirds of the those surveyed believe that robots will "probably" or "definitely" do most of the work that humans currently do, but 80 percent of respondents somehow think their job won't be affected by automation. In other words, a lot of people are wrong.
The survey responses, said Andrea Kuszewski, a behavioral therapist who specializes in the intersection of humans and machines "is the good old-fashioned optimism bias—a tendency to think that we are less at risk of having a negative event affect us than other people are. In other words, the 'it won't happen to me' effect."
Obviously, people want to think of themselves as a special snowflake at work, not merely the sum of a few simple functions that create more value on a company's balance sheet. But as machines get better at performing all sorts of tasks, it stands to reason that they may start to take over tasks that humans are paid to do—including the stuff you're doing right now.
Doctors, lawyers, stand-up comedians, CEOs, models, journalists, personal assistants, architects, clergymen—there's evidence that all of these gigs, and many more, could be automated in form or fashion in the coming decades. Even people like Kuszewski could one day be forced out by intelligent machines if we continue to develop robopsychologists. (If you really want to squirm, consider that a rudimentary form of a robot therapist has existed since 1966.)
"During the 21st century, I think it will become technically possible to automate essentially all human jobs," said Stuart Elliott, an analyst at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the author of research on how new technology will transform the workplace.
Elliott is mainly concerned with the development of artificial intelligence as it relates to four human skills: language, reasoning, vision, and movement. Language use is the most far-off at this point, so jobs that require negotiations or interpersonal communication are the least likely to be displaced by robots right now.
Data from a 2013 Oxford University study on the future of employment came to a similar conclusion: The more social intelligence a job required, the less likely it was to be automated—so therapists and social workers were pretty safe; bookkeepers and bill collectors, not so much. (If you're curious about where your job fits in, NPR made this handy tool to calculate your risk of being replaced by a robot based on the Oxford data.)
But even if your job isn't at immediate risk of disappearing, it doesn't mean that machines won't change it in significant ways. Daniel Susskind, an economics lecturer at Balliol College at Oxford University, makes this point in his recent book, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts.The effect of automation, he argues, will be in replacing various tasks rather than replacing entire occupations.
In fact, it's already happening: Just look at ATM machines, which have automated the work of bank tellers, or the 27 million Americans who use software like TurboTax instead of hiring a human accountant to file their taxes. If you look at automation this way, the good news is that not every job will be replaced outright. (Unless you're a factory worker, or one of those people who waves signs on street corners. Sorry.) The bad news is that, unlike studies that predict automation will affect about half of jobs in the United States, Susskind's view suggests that close to 100 percent of jobs could be at least partially automated.
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According to research published last year, a CEO could outsource at least one fifth of her tasks to a robot—things like data analysis or reviewing status reports—using currently available technology. And while jobs that involve emotion, creativity, or abstract thinking are the hardest to automate right now, it doesn't mean machines won't be able to do some form of that sort of thinking in the future.
"An architect might say [he or she will be spared from technological changes] because the job requires creativity, and creativity is something that can't be done by anything other than a human being. That's a mistake," Susskind told me. "If you look at the job of an architect and decompose it, many of those tasks don't require creativity at all"—and those ones, he said, are ripe for automation.
Take an example from religion, which seems least likely of all to succumb to robot intervention. In 2011, the Catholic Church endorsed an app called Confession, which included tools for tracking sins users commit, a step-by-step guide to the sacrament, and seven options for contrition. According to Susskind, some Catholics took this as a sign that they didn't have to go into that box anymore and stopped going to confession altogether. "It caused such a scare that the Vatican itself had to step in and say, 'You're allowed to use this technology to help you prepare for confession, but it's not the substitute for the real thing,'" Susskind told me.
Some jobs require flesh and blood—like pardoning sins, apparently. And as automation becomes more common, there may be jobs that we choose not to automate even though it's technically possible to do so. "I think such exceptions will involve jobs where we particularly care that a human is doing the job and where people are willing to do the work for free," Elliot told me. "Acting might be a good example, and probably also being president."
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So if virtually every job will change because of new technologies, and humans will give up increasingly bigger chunks of their work to robots, what will be left for humans to do?
One option is that we let robots do all the drudgery that produces needed goods and services, spread the resulting prosperity around, and spend our days creating art, thinking profound thoughts, and just kind of lounging around eating grapes or whatever. (This vision of the future was popular in sci-fi back in the first half of the 20th century.) The other option is that corporations profit off robot labor at the expense of humans, who can't find work and consequently starve to death. I guess only time will tell?
If you ask Elliot, though, there's no reason not to be optimistic. "As work is increasingly automated, we'll be forced to implement some sort of universal basic income so that it will become possible for people who don't work to be able to live comfortably," he told me. Cue the grape eating.
Kuszewski is hopeful too. "Automation allows us to spend our cognitive resources in higher-level activities, which ultimately moves society forward even more," she told me. "The most successful industries will be the ones embracing what technology makes possible, rather than what it takes away."
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