The Robots are Coming

Automation, AI and the Workforce of the Future

The First Industrial Revolution brought about mechanization using water and steam to power production; the Second used electricity to usher in mass production; the Third was propelled by electronics and information technology which made automation the new means of manufacture. With each revolution came shifts to social, economic, environmental and political systems that truly reshaped the course of humanity. Today, humanity is embarking on a period of unparalleled technological advancements that many are calling “the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which, unlike the great revolutions of the past, is much faster, and its economic and social consequences are so far-reaching that we can barely conceive them today.

At its core, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a range of new technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds which will exponentially change the way we live, work, and relate to one another. As physical and digital begin to merge, rapid and exponential increases in computing power are propelling developments in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, synthetic biology and robotics, drastically superseding any digital progress made in the past 60 years and creating realities that were previously unthinkable. 

While in some ways the 4IR is building on the computerization of the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century, it is being considered as a distinguishable era. Think of voice-activated assistants, facial ID recognition or digital health-care sensors - this revolution is expected to impact all disciplines and economies and to disrupt almost every industry in every country, creating drastic changes in an unprecedented speed in how individuals, companies, and governments operate. The revolution promises gains in scientific knowledge, human health, income levels and the overall quality of life for the world’s population.  But like with any seismic shift, there will be winners and losers. 


While the 4IR is expected to unfold over the 21st Century, one of its components - automation -has already disrupted jobs and labor markets and is set to drastically change the way we work. The topic of job displacement has, throughout US history, ignited frustration over technological advances and their tendency to make traditional jobs obsolete; artisans protested textile mills in the early 19th century, for example. “Never until now did human invention devise such expedients for dispensing with the labor of the poor,” said a pamphlet at the time. But while in the past technology has always ended up creating more jobs than it destroys, public concern with how robots are replacing human jobs has been growing in recent years as more manual processes become automated. And as technology continues to accelerate, so will automation.

Amazon’s workforce is already equipped with robots that efficiently perform jobs that were once done by humans. In their workstation, robots carry huge cartons of goods and align them in order of delivery. In 2013, it has 1,000 robots, three years later the numbers went up to 45,000 and today they have over 100,000 robots. While, Scott Anderson, the company’s director of robotics fulfillment, has said that the point at which an Amazon warehouse is fully, end-to-end automated is at least 10 years away, last month the tech giant announced that it will spend $700 million to train about 100,000 workers in the US by 2025, helping them move into more highly skilled jobs. The New York Times observed that with this program Amazon is acknowledging that ”advances in automation technology will handle many tasks now done by people.”

But with new advances in AI, it’s not just industrial and warehouse robots that will reshape the workforce. 

Robotic technology and vision systems are tested at a new Amazon fulfillment center on August 10, 2017 in Sacramento, California. (Getty)


In a widely noted study published in 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the probability of computerization for 702 occupations and found that 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation. In particular, they warned that most workers in transport and logistics (such as taxi and delivery drivers) and office support (such as receptionists and security guards) “are likely to be substituted by computer capital”, and that many workers in sales and services (such as cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers, and accountants) also faced a high risk of computerization. They concluded that “recent developments in machine learning will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future.” 

While no sector will be unaffected by these technologies, PwC has found that areas like health may be relatively less affected due to a greater reliance on social skills and the human touch. AI and robots will have an important role in health care in the future, but more working alongside human doctors and nurses than replacing them. The same would be true in the education sector, according to their analysis. They also found that in the short term,  the impact of automation may be low for workers of all education levels, but in the long run that those with lower education levels could be much more vulnerable to being displaced by machines.

Since 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, the number of jobs which AI and machines will displace in the future has been the subject of numerous other studies, surveys, op-eds and policy papers. Subsequent studies put the equivalent figure at 35% of the workforce for Britain (where more people work in creative fields less susceptible to automation) and 49% for Japan.

The McKinsey Global Institute found that the disruption of automation will hit women workers the hardest due to their higher representation in certain fields. It found that between 40 million and 160 million women worldwide may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher-skilled roles. Clerical work, done by secretaries, schedulers and bookkeepers, is an area especially susceptible to automation, and 72% of those jobs in advanced economies are held by women.

But other reports provide a more positive take. The World Economic Forum found that while automation will displace 75 million jobs, it will generate 133 million new ones worldwide by 2022. Gartner found that AI-related job creation will reach two million net-new jobs in 2025. Another study by McKinsey Global Institute found that worldwide, with sufficient economic growth, innovation an investment, there can be enough new job creation to offset the impact of automation, although in some advanced economies additional investments will be needed to reduce the risk of job shortages. In the US, there will be a net positive job growth through 2030.  PwC found that AI, robotics, and other forms of smart automation have the potential to bring great economic benefits, contributing up to $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030. Although this wealth will displace many existing jobs, PwC says it will also generate the demand for many jobs.

But while experts can predict which fields automation might do away with the need for human labor, it is less obvious where technology might create new jobs. “We can’t predict what jobs will be created in the future, but it’s always been like that,” Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University told the Economist. Imagine trying to tell someone a century ago that her great-grandchildren would be video-game designers or cybersecurity specialists, he suggests. “These are jobs that nobody in the past would have predicted.”


Optimistic experts point to examples in the past of where industries declined and new ones emerged to replace them while the prerequisites of employment were redefined. Just as people are concerned about the impact of self-driving vehicles today, a century ago they were similarly concerned about the impact of the transition from horses to cars. But while horse-related jobs declined, entirely new jobs were created in the fast-food and motel industries that arose to serve motorists. Thus, some experts predict that self-driving vehicles will free up more time for people to consume goods and services, increasing demand elsewhere in the economy; and autonomous vehicles might greatly expand demand for products delivered locally.

But could this time be different?

The impact of automation this time is broader as the advancements in technology will affect every industry, which was not the case two centuries ago where many workers could switch and adapt from one kind of routine to another. This time around, unskilled workers will need to broaden their skill sets while society will need to rethink how it perceives education, employment, and entrepreneurship to stay ahead of technology as it continues to evolve. Another difference is that the shift from agriculture to industry took decades, whereas technology is developing much more rapidly requiring people to learn new skills much more quickly than in the past.

Despite the wide range of views expressed, most people will agree that rather than succumbing the doomsday predictions that robots will take over all our jobs, companies and governments will need to work together to make it easier for workers to acquire new skills to adjust to these new technologies through retraining and switch jobs as needed.  PwC says that a culture of adaptability and lifelong learning will be crucial for spreading the benefits of AI and robotics widely through society, particularly with an aging population where we need people to be able to work for longer. Soft skills will also be important in making people adaptable and employable throughout their working lives as the lifespan of any given skill set is shrinking. People will also get to do more work that requires creativity, social and emotional intelligence, and passion.

Although what the future holds is impossible to accurately to predict, it is important that we begin taking steps to prepare for a future where machines become colleagues, as if we don't begin to adapt to the changes today, it will be challenging to catch up later.