KEHLAN KIRWAN: Small Business Column: Artificial intelligence and robotics in the workplace

In this week’s column Kehlan looks at the growing influence of artificial intelligence and robotics in the workplace and how nearly half of all human jobs could be obsolete within the next few decades.

During the American presidential election we saw Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both work hard on getting votes within the ‘rust belt’ area of America. Steel mill towns and coal districts with jobs that went somewhere else or just went altogether.

What wasn’t a significant talking point, and was missed by many commentators, was those jobs that are gone forever. Humans are being replaced by robotics and that will only increase in the next number of decades. Even if those mills and mines came back it would be hard to see anything like the numbers employed as before.

Everything from flipping burgers to solicitors and journalists, all are now feeling the heat from algorithms and machines.

We now have self-healing machines which can fix themselves on the go. Robotics that can add components and new parts to make themselves run at continued efficiency. We aren’t even close to fulfilling the heights of robotics technology yet, this is only the beginning.

This is the new frontier for the human existence. How do we face a future where we are told that we are now second place to artificial intelligence (AI)?

This will fundamentally alter politics, economies, societies and cultures. 

We have failed to really understand the length to which this will impact on all of us. 

Oxford University researchers have found that nearly half of jobs in the US alone could be replaced by robotics within the next few decades. This means workers face an uneasy future with protests and worker revolts being more and more commonplace.

If we look at the history of new technologies within the past 200 years the rise and rise of technology has led to the decline of jobs within industries.

The industrial revolution closed the chapter on farming being one of the top employers for many countries. 

The money was to be made in cities and manufacturing and so we’ve seen the steady decline of workers in farming over the past two centuries. The decline in one industry led to the adaptation of new ones. Its why economies and workers have learned to adapted with the enormous changes over the past few centuries.

The difference now is that the movement from one industry to another becomes more difficult as we role into the next number of decades. 

It is going to be next near impossible for somebody to move from assembly line work into nanotechnology development. The industrial revolution allowed mechanisation to flourish but also created a movement from one type of work to another in a relatively easier fashion. Plus, with robotics infiltrating even the highest end of jobs, the work may simply not be there at all.

Think, for a moment, on how that will impact on something that we consider everyday now. The education system, particularly in Ireland, has an emphasis on getting jobs. Instead of encouraging job creators we encourage job getters. How will people see the role of third-level institutions if the jobs are no longer there to be filled?

In an interview with Wired magazine author of Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford, told of how the solution could come in the form of guaranteed incomes.

“My proposed solution,” Ford said, “is to have some kind of a guaranteed income that incentivises education. We don’t want people to get halfway through high school and say, ‘Well, if I drop out I’m still going to get the same income as everyone else.’ Then I believe that a guaranteed income would result in more entrepreneurship. A lot of people would start businesses just as they do today.”

Ford has a point; we need to focus heavily on our education system for those societal gaps to close. The ability to upskill quickly will be incredibly important. What we need is to have that flow, that capability for any numbers of people to move onward and upward.

We also have the immediate impact of population growth. In the space of those 200 years the earth’s population had moved from 1.5bn people to 7.5bn. Huge growth in such a short space of time has put enormous pressure on our planet and its resources. With less and less immediate jobs in the future we will need to find a way to adapt to the needs of those people.

Businesses, themselves, will not be immune from this either. Entire sectors of the business community will see themselves under threat, but as Martin Ford mentioned, the answer may lie with entrepreneurship.

We often look at start-ups and entrepreneurship as necessity being the mother of invention. Like the turn of the last century we are seeing a tornado of new inventions beginning to come together to develop a new technological age. Back then it was the aeroplane, electricity, the car, and long range telecommunications. Now we are looking at an age of AI, robotics combined with the likes of 3D printing and the ever-increasing blockchain technology. It’s a perfect storm of rapid and expanding shifts in business and creativity.

While have yet to see AI and robotics move into the everyday mainstream, we are seeing more and more of it hit the headlines. Uber getting involved in driver-less cars and driver-less trucks hit the headlines in September. Uber is set to put significant investment into developing the technology.

Watch out for Uber Logistics in the next few years. No drivers to pay, no sleep or breaks to take. We’ll be talking about truck drivers in the past tense.

But it appears we are half way through the tunnel. We are at the darkest point, we can see the light but it’s going to take some travelling to reach the end. In the meantime, we are faced with an uncertainty about what jobs will go and how soon. 

We don’t how we’re going to react to that. We can’t see what future that will create. The positive side says that we will learn to adapt and that humanity will be better off in the long run. The negative side suggests it will lead to the dystopian future we read about and watch on our screens.

What is certain is that robotics and AI are in all our futures.

How your jobs and your business survive will depend on how quickly the reaction to it happens.


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