The PJ Tatler

Should We Fear Jobs Being Lost to Machines?

Every time I stoop down to take a sip from a water fountain, I marvel at how far the human race has come. Something as simple as getting a quick drink of water, which we in the first world take wholly for granted, would have occupied a significant portion of a person’s day just a handful of decades ago.

Think of it. Imagine what life would be like without indoor plumbing and modern methods of water distribution. What if you had to go out and find a natural source of water to sustain yourself and your family? How different would your life look? It’s humbling to consider.

With that in mind, imagine if someone had argued at the dawn of indoor plumbing that one out of every three jobs would be lost to the scary new technological development. How would you respond? Knowing what we all do now, we would regard the claim as ludicrous. After all, what kind of jobs would we be talking about? Digging wells? Schlepping buckets back from the nearest river? Who would want to do that when you could simply turn a facet in your home and let the life-giving bounty flow? Think of all the time saved by not having to seek water, the other things we’re able to do, the quality of life we’re able to enjoy.

We should keep that in mind when regarding claims like those coming out of Gartner’s Symposium/ITxpo this week. Computer World reports:

Smart machines are an emerging “super class” of technologies that perform a wide variety of work, both the physical and the intellectual kind, said [Peter Sondergaard, Gartner’s research director]. Machines, for instance, have been grading multiple choice for years, but now they are grading essays and unstructured text.

This cognitive capability in software will extend to other areas, including financial analysis, medical diagnostics and data analytic jobs of all sorts, says Gartner.

“Knowledge work will be automated,” said Sondergaard, as will physical jobs with the arrival of smart robots.

“Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025,” said Sondergaard. “New digital businesses require less labor; machines will be make sense of data faster than humans can.”

Even if Gartner’s prediction pans out, and one out of three current jobs is soon lost to the rise of intelligent machines, that does not mean life will soon get worse for humankind. On the contrary, to the extent work can continue to be automated by computers and robots, the cost of production will drop, and the ability of humans to pursue more meaningful work will increase.

New jobs will emerge which we lack the context to imagine. Someone working in the 1890’s could hardly envision a functioning world without blacksmiths, to say nothing of comprehending information technology. Yet here we are, enjoying a quality of life far in excess of theirs.

The whole notion of children growing up to be whoever they want to be, and to do whatever they want to do, is recent to civilization. It wasn’t that long ago that your occupation, indeed your entire life’s path, was dictated by the fundamental requirements  survival. Advancements in automation will only broaden the horizons of future generations.

(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here. 15:12 minutes long; 14.66 MB file size. Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)