Will Robots Take Our Jobs by 2025? Tech Experts Are Evenly Split

Wednesday, 06 August 2014 - 12:53PM
Wednesday, 06 August 2014 - 12:53PM

Are we looking forward to a robot utopia or dystopia by 2025? Technology experts are deeply divided on the issue, as demonstrated by a survey published by Pew Research. 


In light of driverless cars, robotic elderly caregivers, and computer programs that can write fables, respondents were nearly unanimous in their belief that technology would profoundly change the job landscape of the near future. But they diverged about whether this is a positive or negative development; 52 percent of respondents took the position that jobs would either be created or that there would be no net difference, while 48% thought that humans would lose jobs to robots. "There was obviously no clear consensus at all among the folks surveyed," said Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center's Internet Project and lead author of the report. The projections for the future ranged between a humanistic utopia in which people can relegate all of their dirty work to non-sentient beings, to a class warfare dystopia in which the middle and lower class are scrambling to prove their worth to an indifferent capitalism that favors cheaper robotic labor.




[Credit: IEEE Spectrum]


Many felt that jobs would either shift into different sectors, particularly the technology sector, or that jobs would be created by the demand for technological innovation. Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, said, "Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case. Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices."


[Credit: Pew Research]


Others felt that there would never be a danger of humans running out of jobs, as there are certain jobs that only a human can do as a result of our unique capacity for skills such as creativity and empathy. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, said, "There will be many things that machines can't do, such as services that require thinking, creativity, synthesizing, problem-solving, and innovating…Advances in AI and robotics allow people to cognitively offload repetitive tasks and invest their attention and energy in things where humans can make a difference... An app can dial Mom's number and even send flowers, but an app can't do that most human of all things: emotionally connect with her."


Still others went a step further, and believed that there would be more intrinsic (and positive) changes to our societal framework surrounding the entire concept of "jobs" and the contributions of humans to society. For example, Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, felt that our attitudes surrounding work, and particularly the length of the average work week, would change with the times: "If 'displace more jobs' means 'eliminate dull, repetitive, and unpleasant work,' the answer would be yes. How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand, or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this 'job displacement' has been very welcome, as will the 'job displacement' that will occur over the next 10 years. The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work. Robots of various forms will result in less work, but the conventional work week will decrease, so there will be the same number of jobs (adjusted for demographics, of course). This is what has been going on for the last 300 years so I see no reason that it will stop in the decade."


Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz, founders of the online community Awakening Technology, wrote, "Many things need to be done to care for, teach, feed, and heal others that are difficult to monetize. If technologies replace people in some jobs and roles, what kinds of social support or safety nets will make it possible for them to contribute to the common good through other means? Think outside the job."


Tim Bray, an active participant in the IETF and technology industry veteran, wrote, "It seems inevitable to me that the proportion of the population that needs to engage in traditional full-time employment, in order to keep us fed, supplied, healthy, and safe, will decrease. I hope this leads to a humane restructuring of the general social contract around employment."




[Credit: Pew Research]


The other half of respondents were considerably less idealistic, with many citing the already evident trend that anything that can be outsourced to technology will be. Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, said: "Automation is Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name. Oh sure, we talk about it now and then, but usually in passing. We hardly dwell on the fact that someone trying to pick a career path that is not likely to be automated will have a very hard time making that choice. X-ray technician? Outsourced already, and automation in progress. The race between automation and human work is won by automation, and as long as we need fiat currency to pay the rent/mortgage, humans will fall out of the system in droves as this shift takes place…"


Similarly, Robert Cannon, Internet law and policy expert, believed that the value of humans and human contribution would decrease rather than increase: "Everything that can be automated will be automated. Non-skilled jobs lacking in 'human contribution' will be replaced by automation when the economics are favorable. At the hardware store, the guy who used to cut keys has been replaced by a robot. In the law office, the clerks who used to prepare discovery have been replaced by software. IBM Watson is replacing researchers by reading every report ever written anywhere. This begs the question: What can the human contribute? The short answer is that if the job is one where that question cannot be answered positively, that job is not likely to exist."


[Credit: Pew Research]


Others predicted profound social impact, particularly regarding the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said, "Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work-even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers, and accountants. There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone-and these will not pay a living wage-and there will be some new opportunities created for complex non-routine work, but the gains at this top of the labor market will not be offset by losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom. I'm not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible, but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom."


Still others predicted that certain demographics would be hit harder than others in the robotic revolution. Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, projected an increase in unemployment for men: "As just one aspect of the rise of robots and AI, widespread use of autonomous cars and trucks will be the immediate end of taxi drivers and truck drivers; truck driver is the number-one occupation for men in the U.S." (That being said, a recent study showed that jobs in the service or care industry that are predominantly held by women are more likely to be replaced by technology than jobs primarily held by men.)




Some of the respondents felt that there were too many social and economic factors involved to make any kind of informed prediction. Seth Finkelstein, a programmer, consultant and EFF Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award winner, responded, "The technodeterminist-negative view, that automation means jobs loss, end of story, versus the technodeterminist-positive view, that more and better jobs will result, both seem to me to make the error of confusing potential outcomes with inevitability. Thus, a technological advance by itself can either be positive or negative for jobs, depending on the social structure as a whole….this is not a technological consequence; rather it's a political choice." Although no one can say what the "right" answer may be, this seems to be the most nuanced approach.


This view is my personal favorite, mostly because it reminds me of a certain alien race that told Earthlings they were "too young" for the aliens' advanced technologies: 


[Credit: Pew Research]


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