Mass Automation – The future of employment

Last week, iPhone manufacturer Foxconn announced that they would be replacing 60,000 human workers with robots. The change is due to increased labour costs, as previously cheap and exploitable migrant wages become more expensive. 600 other companies in the Taiwan and parts of China plan to follow Foxconn’s example, and they are currently spending a combined $609 million on artificial intelligence per year.

A former McDonalds CEO declared that from a simple business perspective hiring $35,000 robots was cheaper than hiring $15 an hour human workers to serve at chain restaurants. The CEO also offered a political angle to this rapidly evolving issue, insisting that any changes to the minimum wage in the USA would only push employers to replace humans with machines at an accelerated rate. Finally, Adidas announced that they were moving back manufacturing to their home country in Germany, which at the moment is almost entirely done in sweatshops in China. However, the new ‘speedfactory’, will be entirely automated. Their main competitor Nike is also in the process of developing a fully automated plant within the United States. This represents a developing trend, in how rising labour costs in Asia are forcing manufacturing companies to move back to western regions to be closer to the target market, while avoiding expensive local labour costs completely.

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Many of the jobs in Tesla’s California based factory are done or aided by more than 100 huge robots.

These kinds of news stories will become increasingly common over the coming years, as both artificial intelligence and robotic precision increase, and human labour costs continue to rise. Equally, labour unions are demanding higher wages, with increased occurrences of strikes in the public sector when they are refused. Although this new economic age poses a incredibly wide range of questions and speculation, perhaps the most relevant regarding our generation concerns the future labour market and careers.

Essentially, the key question is determining whether a robot can replace your job, and if true, how soon will it happen. The average person tends to underestimate the speed at which artificial intelligence technology is adapting and advancing. It is typical to assume that only certain sectors are at risk such as the transportation industry or service industry. While it is true that self driving automobiles will render long haul truckers useless (consider how an autopilot car never needs to stop for sleep or food), it is startling as to the extent that other careers are at risk.

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Semi-automated lorries are already threatening truck driver’s jobs with a convoy of 12 trucks crossing Europe in April 2016.

The BBC released an interesting evaluation on this issue in this article , and although the system it uses has certain issues, it gives a good broad outlook as to which careers robots can and will replace. The key point it advocates is that robots will never be able to operate on a truly human social level  (which is a controversial assumption in itself). Consider what it would take for you to be comfortable having a completely autonomous robot operate on you in a medical procedure. Would it purely be based on how precise it is? Or is there another dimension that exists, that you might not be able to shake out. This famous idea based upon these kinds of problems is “a robot doesn’t have to be perfect, it only has to be better than a human”. This critical idea applies itself easily in say transportation, where human error accounts for practically all car accidents, which are one of the biggest killers in the western world.

Creative thinking is going to become a crucial and highly employable asset in the future, because at the moment where robots are predicted to fail, is mimicking human ingenuity. This reflects on the careers that are predicted to be less susceptible to robot replacement; nestled in between all the highly social careers, like engineering, architects, designers, I.T. workers. Although it might seem like a cliché, creativity does hold strong in the battle against robots. Certain economists fear this large-scale transition will result in mass unemployment and increasing inequality, but history shows that when faced with technological advances, humans are able to adapt.

If this interests you, here’s an informative and well edited video that expands further on the subject.