Will a Robot Take Your Job? How Automation and AI Are Transforming the Way We Work

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Will a Robot Take Your Job? How Automation and AI Are Transforming the Way We Work
by Gabriela Theard

 

Will a robot replace you?

 

Well, maybe. We are good at making our lives easier through technology. For centuries, we’ve been replacing human labor with machines. The printing press replaced handwritten books and maps. Tractors replaced the farmer and plow. Factories replaced the artisans that once made everyday objects like tools and clothes. 

 

 

Before AI, We Were Industrial 

 

Many jobs became obsolete during the Industrial Revolution. The Information Age wiped out a great many more. And yet, people are still working. The workforce is more significant than ever. Since the end of the 19th century, the percentage of employed adults has steadily risen. As specific jobs disappear, we devise new ways of keeping ourselves occupied.

 

Why are people anxious about AI then? Things like the printing press and the assembly line replaced human labor. AI seems like it may eventually replace human intelligence. And that’s a much less comfortable proposition.

 

So, just how smart is AI? Let’s consider some of the recent achievements in artificial intelligence and the professions being affected. 

AI robot

 

Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI)

 

 

AI and The Medical Field

 

Biomedical engineers developed an AI tool that diagnoses lung cancer more accurately than doctors. The AI model could identify subtle patterns undetectable to humans and correctly identified cancer 95% of the time. Radiologists have a 65% accuracy rate. Through AI, doctors could make a lung cancer diagnosis 1-2 years sooner, more than doubling the patients’ chances of survival.  

 

AI and Literature

 

In Japan, a book co-written by AI and a computer scientist was short-listed for a national literary prize. The AI created the novel from a preselected database of words and phrases. It is a semi-autobiographical work about a computer that abandons its human overlords to become an author—very meta. 

 

AI in the Perfume Industry

 

AI might create your next signature scent. IBM’s Philyra was introduced to virtually every perfume ever made to discover patterns of scent and novel combinations. It uses machine learning to develop formulas for new, wholly unique perfumes. 

 

AI in Musical Compisition

 

Schubert began Symphony No.8 in 1822, but for mysterious reasons, it was never completed. That is until Huawei set themselves the task of finishing the famous symphony. Engineers fed all of Schubert’s compositions into the Huawei phone’s dual Neural Processing Unit. From there, the AI completed the symphony using Schubert’s signature pitch, meter, and timbre. You can listen to it over on Youtube. The AI’s contribution begins at the 24:30 mark. 

 

AI in the Art World

 

When a new Rembrandt was unveiled in 2016, it set both the art and tech world buzzing. AI spent 18 months analyzing 346 artworks before trying its hand (or, in this case, a 3-D printer) to paint. The result was uncanny. It looked just like a Rembrandt, right down to the brush strokes. The experts weren’t fooled, of course, but many museum-goers mistook it for a lost artwork.

 

The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, wasn’t happy, writing, “What a horrible, tasteless, insensitive and soulless travesty of all that is creative in human nature. What a gross product of our strange time when the best brains dedicate themselves to the stupidest “challenges” and technology is used for things it should never be used for.”

 

People have strong opinions about AI encroaching into territory we think of as uniquely human. If it can diagnose cancer or add to an Old Master’s body of work– what industry won’t be touched by AI? And is anyone’s job safe?

 

Economist David Autor says we can all relax. We won’t run out of jobs because of two fundamental economic principles: human ingenuity and human greed. 

 

 

AI and Human Ingenuity

 

AI and humans

 

 

The recent developments in AI are impressive. But they still require a partnership with humans. Humans and machines have a symbiotic relationship and continue to work better together. 

 

Doctors cannot replicate the accuracy, pattern-recognition, or consistency of AI. AI cannot offer a doctor’s bedside manner or good judgment. 

 

Philyra can invent endless combinations of scents, but it could not originate from the idea of perfume. 

 

Huawei’s AI can build upon Schubert’s genius. However, it could not have spontaneously created music itself, the way humans did 40,000 years ago. 

 

The new Rembrandt could not have been made without the old Rembrandt’s contribution to 346 original works. 

 

This has led some industry experts to say “artificial intelligence” is a misnomer. It should be called “augmented intelligence” (at least we can keep the acronym!). 

 

 

Technology cannot substitute for our creative spark. Rather than replacing us, AI enhances human capabilities. We design the operational systems, and then machines do the work for us, allowing us to expand our ingenuity to new horizons.

 

 

Jobs Then, Jobs Now, and Human Tendency

 

Many of the jobs that employ us today didn’t exist a hundred years ago–technology, insurance, electronics, telecommunications, and more. Many of the products and services we buy didn’t exist either, like mobile phones, personal computers, Netflix, Google, SUVs–the list is virtually endless.

 

It turns out automation is an asset to our creativity. People are continuously coming up with new ideas, new products, and new services that attract our attention, time, and money. From commercial space flight to dog birthday parties, people are always creating new things and finding a market for them.

 

What the economist calls “greed,” a psychologist would call the hedonic treadmill. This is the human tendency to quickly return to our baseline emotional state, no matter what happens to us. If we go on a vacation, buy a new purse, or get a haircut–our pleasure will be fleeting. Our emotional state swiftly returns to normal, leading us to acquire more goods and services to elevate our mood.  

 

That’s why it’s a treadmill. We never really get anywhere-with our mood, that is. But we do keep producing jobs in our endless pursuit of happiness. 

 

A hundred years ago, 40 percent of American workers were employed by agriculture. In 2020, that number has fallen to less than 2 percent. We certainly aren’t eating less today. Our population has increased nearly fivefold, requiring much more food than we did in 1900. But with advances in farming, we can produce the food we need with a fraction of the labor. 

 

Inevitably, technology sometimes eliminates jobs. Farming is one of many lost to innovation alongside switchboard operators, town criers, and bowling pinsetters. But what is true for a particular industry has never been confirmed for the economy overall. When one industry falters, another one rises, and the economy continues to expand. 

 

two human girls culture

 

Automation as an Asset

 

Many of the jobs that employ us today didn’t exist a hundred years ago–technology, insurance, electronics, telecommunications, and more. Many of the products and services we buy didn’t exist either, like mobile phones, personal computers, Netflix, Google, SUVs–the list is virtually endless.

 

It turns out automation is an asset to our creativity. People are continuously coming up with new ideas, new products, and new services that attract our attention, time, and money. From commercial space flight to dog birthday parties, people are always creating new things and finding a market for them.

 

What the economist calls “greed,” a psychologist would call the hedonic treadmill. This is the human tendency to quickly return to our baseline emotional state, no matter what happens to us. If we go on a vacation, buy a new purse, or get a haircut–our pleasure will be fleeting. Our emotional state swiftly returns to normal, leading us to acquire more goods and services to elevate our mood.  

 

That’s why it’s a treadmill. We never really get anywhere-with our mood, that is. But we do keep producing jobs in our endless pursuit of happiness. 

 

 

Robotics and Human Jobs at Amazon

 

We’ve covered some of the fantastic things AI is doing across several industries. But that doesn’t give us a roadmap for how the average office could evolve with automation. For that, we’ll look to Amazon. 

 

Over the last decade, Amazon has been automating office work through its program, “Hands Off the Wheel.” The idea isn’t to replace their workforce with robots. Instead, when a job is automated, they upskill their workers to step into more complex roles. For instance, the majority of the company’s retail workers were made redundant by machine learning. Rather than being let go, they were promoted to product and program management jobs. 

 

“People who were doing these mundane, repetitive tasks are now being freed up to do tasks that are about invention…the things that are harder for machines to do,” said Jeff Wilke, former CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer division. 

 

Automation hasn’t reduced jobs at Amazon. The company added roughly 1,400 jobs a day in 2020. They employ 1.2 million people globally, not including the approximately 500,000 drivers who work as independent contractors. While they are continually improving their AI processes, they’re also making long-term investments in human beings. For example, the company is partnering with preschools to develop a tech-education program for children as young as three. According to Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president for workforce development, “As our hiring demand unfolds over the next ten years, that pipeline is there and ready.”

 

 

AI and Humans: The Odd Couple

 

Humanity has not just survived but thrived, alongside three Industrial Revolutions. The ongoing automation of work processes, AKA Revolution 4.0, is no cause for fear. While AI can render specific skills and jobs obsolete, human innovation will continue to create new career paths and opportunities.

 

At its best, automation improves working conditions for humans. They are freed from routine tasks and can put their intelligence and creativity to fair use. Companies like Amazon offer a blueprint for using AI to improve both business and human outcomes. 

 

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