Robots: Job Terminators

Why more and more workers—even in surprisingly complex jobs—are being left behind by automation


Matt Rourke / CP

Car buffs looking for information on the new BMW i3 electric car are being told to text the company’s U.K. sales department. What they may not realize is that they are kicking off a conversation with a computer. The artificial intelligence system, created by London Brand Management, is capable of making sense of natural language cues and learning as it goes along, allowing it to carry on a realistic back-and-forth conversation—at least to the extent that texting can be considered conversation.

It’s PR without people, and it’s the latest example of how machines are continuing to infiltrate the workplace. Three decades ago, robots took over the factory floor, displacing millions of blue-collar workers in the process. Now, they’re being tapped to do office work, sell insurance and feed hungry fast-food patrons. San Francisco’s Momentum Machines, for example, has built a burger-flipping robot that can dispense 360 sizzling burgers per hour, potentially saving restaurants up to $135,000 in annual labour costs. Other companies are turning to so-called Big Data to direct their marketing and advertising, relying on powerful computers to comb through huge databases of information about customers’ shopping and web-surfing habits.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Oxford suggested that automation—the use of machines to do tasks formerly done by people—could threaten as many as half of all occupations within the next two decades, including several occupations that were once considered “safe” because they involved making judgment calls or interacting with others. “Computerization will no longer be confined to these rule-based queries, where a certain task is repeated over and over again,” says Carl Frey, one of the Oxford study’s co-authors. “Computers can now make all sorts of subtle decisions.” One recent well-known example is IBM’s computer, Watson, which competed on Jeopardy two years ago and beat two previous champions.

What this all means for human workers is not yet clear. Some economists say the displaced will simply find new occupations, as has historically been the case when a new technology comes along. Plus, there are all those engineering and programming jobs needed to design and build automated systems. But a growing number are convinced that technological change now moves with such speed that jobs are being automated away in greater numbers than new ones can be realized. The phenomenon is even being used to explain the unique characteristics of today’s economy—everything from stubborn unemployment to the ballooning class of low-paid, low-skilled workers. “Technology will make us wealthier, on average,” Frey says. “But many will also be left behind.”

Out of 702 job categories examined in the Oxford study, 47 per cent were deemed possible candidates for some degree of future automation. The shift is being driven by technological advancements in key areas where computers have typically lagged humans. One is perception. Thanks to improved sensor technology, engineers are now able to build robots that are capable of functioning outside of strictly controlled environments, such as factories. Google’s driverless car, for example, relies on a combination of GPS, lasers, radar and sophisticated software to help it plot its course and avoid obstacles along the way. In fact, Frey and co-author Michael Osborne predict that transportation and logistics will be one of the first sectors to be hit by the next wave of automation, affecting everyone from taxi drivers to long-haul truckers.

Meanwhile, advancements in machine learning mean computers can think more like humans, allowing them to analyze unstructured data and learn from experience. Improvements in natural-language recognition have also made it possible for millions of iPhone users to turn to Apple’s digital assistant, Siri, when in need of weather updates or restaurant recommendations. But the very same technology also promises to automate a host of other occupations, ranging from office administrators to sales clerks and telemarketers. While such jobs generally require interpersonal skills, Frey and Osborne argue, somewhat insensitively, that “although these occupations involve interactive tasks, they do not necessarily require a high degree of social intelligence.” Further down the road, computers may even be sophisticated enough to substitute for some scientific research and engineering work, they say.

The trend promises to exacerbate the existing polarization of the job market. Over the years, a loss of middle-class jobs—many of them in manufacturing—has resulted in a concentration of well-paid, highly skilled positions at one end of the spectrum, and a ballooning number of low-paid service-industry jobs on the other. While this “hollowing out” has sometimes been blamed on companies shipping jobs overseas to China and India, Henry Siu, an associate economics professor at the University of British Columbia, says the research shows that offshoring only accounts for about 10 per cent of job losses in recent decades. The rest is due to technology. “It’s much easier to point a finger at someone than to blame the computer sitting on your desk,” he says.

The extent to which automation will affect overall employment remains controversial. Robert Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, recently called predictions of an increasingly jobless future the ramblings of neo-Luddites, a reference to British artisans who famously protested the mechanization of the textile industry in the early 1800s. “These ideas are essentially misguided speculation,” Atkinson wrote in InformationWeek. “They fly in the face of years of economic data, as well as current trends.” He argued that productivity has historically led to economic growth, creating more jobs and more wealth. “We did not see massive unemployment as agriculture mechanized in the early 20th century—the workforce shifted to other professions.”

But a turning point may have been reached about 15 years ago, according to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two normally pro-technology researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. In their book Race Against the Machine, they point out that productivity and corporate profits have largely continued to improve since the year 2000, but there has been a notable lack of corresponding job growth. The conclusion? As machines become more like humans, our competitive advantage in the job market is falling by the wayside.

Frey falls somewhere in the middle of the debate. “It’s not that there is a fixed amount of work that needs to be divided up,” he says. “The issue is more about whether workers can keep up with the fast pace of technological change.” A key problem is that newly displaced workers generally aren’t qualified to fill the new jobs being created, whether in robotics or artificial intelligence fields. Most are instead forced into the low-paying service industry, which, if Frey and Osborne are correct, could soon be at risk, too. That could explain why Canadian companies are always complaining about a skills shortage in Canada, while overall unemployment is stuck at 7.1 per cent. It may also explain increasing levels of wealth disparity, as those with a high level of education and training find it easier to adapt to new opportunities.

There are always winners and losers during periods of rapid technological change, Siu says. “The difference this time around is the ones getting hurt are in the middle, and that’s the bulk of us.”

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Robots: Job Terminators

  1. Said it for years….if a robot can do your job, it will.

    I also said….get an education, not a trade.

    • Yeah right, get an education and then you can get a bullshit job.

      How did the last home renovation go Emily? Ever wished you hired someone who knew more about what he or she was doing? Have you been to a farmer’s market lately?

      Many trades involve a lot more education than you give them credit for.

      • That’s a great article. Not often an author is brave enough to dismiss corporate law, administrative services, financial servcies, public relations and human resources as “bullshit industries”, but that is precisely what they are. They produce nothing, add value to nothing, accomplish nothing that a workforce 1/10th it’s current size couldn’t accomplish. All these things put together should never have been more than a tiny percentage of the overall economy. How we can get the economy back towards an actual production mindset is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, there are far too many Emilys out there who think we can all have great careers providing legal, financial, marketing and HR services to each other. Of course, this simply isn’t possible to sustain over the long run. Administrative overhead has but one function – to support the productive economy. If the productive economy disappears, there will be no need for all that overhead. At some point, we’ll have to stop pretending otherwise. It will be an ugly awakening, and probably far too late.

        • Emily has never said anything like that.

          Don’t make stuff up.

      • I loved that article. Not so much the one you linked to, but the original article it refers to, written by the anthropologist David Graeber. He’s got it nailed.

        I have but two disagreements. His assertion that most people, “after a few drinks”, will admit to how useless their jobs are. I’ve yet to hear an HR professional or a high-earning financial services “professional” admit to any such thing. Most are enamored with their own importance, convinced they really are doing productive work. And I’d guess most corporate lawyers really do believe the sun rises and falls because of them.

        Also, I dislike his dismissal of all “administrative” work as useless. In the many workplaces I’ve been a part of, quite often the most valuable position in the whole place was the front desk receptionist. This position has been, in my opinion, woefully undervalued and underpaid throughout the years. Seeing it get outsourced so often these days just confirms my belief.

  2. Those robots cannot yet fix themselves (yes, some can, but most cannot). Learn to fix, program and engineer them.

    • Way too late for that.

      • absolutely not.

        Maintenance Track:

        2 year college get the basics – 2 years certification

        Program Track:
        4 year degree – Comp Sci – 2 to 4 years of programming, getting mentored

        Engineering Track
        4 year degree – Engineering – 3 to 4 years of design, implementation, etc

        Never too late.

        • Robots can build themselves.

          • Robots can build themselves.

            Is that what you tell your grandchildren? Halloween is coming up, after all.

          • My grandchildren are building robots.

          • My grandchildren are building robots.

            The article isn’t about Lego blocks.

          • Like he said, the article wasn’t about Lego blocks. And what do you do? You link to an article about Lego’s latest toys. Once again, you’ve defeated your own argument with a single link.

          • Not what either of us said.

            Now I’ve asked you nicely….stop with the attempted bullying and personal attacks and discuss the topic.


          • If you think creative engineering is beyond what a machine can do, think again. NASA let computers do the engineering work to design some new antennas for a couple of their satellites in 2006.


            Give them a few more decades and they will do all the engineering for us.

          • They can also leave more than 8000 mindless comments on the Internet. That doesn’t mean they’re accopmlishing anything.

    • That will work for some, but hardly all of the jobs lost. The rest will have to cross their fingers and hope innovation and reduced costs make possible new goods and industries we cannot possibly concieve of today.

      Which might even be true for some of them after a time. I hope for those replaced at their machining jobs it happens within six months of their layoff, and in turn is not further replaced by something or someone cheaper.

    • The key word in your sentence is yet. There will be a day when the machines can plan, engineer and build themselves. It’s the logical conclusion. The type of reasoning involved in engineering is the type of reasoning they excel at (mathematical, non-social “reasoning” notwithstanding SIRI).

    • Yes, but when 100 robots replace 100 workers, only 1 worker gets hired as the repair guy. The other 99 are SOL. That is good advice for trying to stay ahead of the curve, but it’s not a solution for society as a whole.

      • Not true at all.

        It takes an equal number to design, build, implement, fix, innovate as it did the original line.

        I think these folks are doing work that’s more creative than just tighten a bolt etc…

        • well, true. Actually, I failed to read your entire first line and just stopped at “learn to fix them”.

          The larger problem however is that when machines replace people, most the people replaced, simply do not have, and never will have, the skills needed to design and engineer and fix the machines that replaced them. Sometimes this is an issue of access to education and the freedom to spend 4, or 6, or 7 years of your life in order to learn a new skill. But most the time, it’s just that the people being replaced, don’t have the aptitude needed and it’s much to late in the life to change it even if it’s possible at all. So most, instead of moving up to higher paid work in engineering or business management, are forced to drop down to lower paid work. A mother of 2 cashier that lost her job because the store installed automated checkout counters and downsized the staff, is just not likely to become the next engineer for the cash register company. They are far more likely, to be forced to take a pay downgrade in a new job.

          This trend tends to drive inequality in society, where a few find ways to climb higher (get that high paid engineering job, or start the new tech company) where most end up being forced into lower paid work. The faster we innovate, the more this trend accelerates. A few move higher because of the innovation, while a large number tend to sink lower.

          When this innovation happened slowly, as it was 200 years ago, the number of displaced was always small. The next generation re-tooled to cope with the new economy. And though some suffered, more gained from the innovations. But he faster we innovation, the more we displace and the less time society has to produce new generations of workers trained for the new economy. When people get displaced by technology mid-life, when they have a family to support, they seldom have the money or time to go back to school and start all over in a new career. Even when thy choose that option, when they come out of school in the late 30’s or early 40’s and have to compete with 25 year olds in the job market, it’s tough. The old guys needs more money to support a family, and the younger guys don’t. So the older guys have to start over at an energy salary, and try to build skills and seniority in competition with the young guys. It’s hard for older guys, to compete with the young guys. Most people displaced, just never do catch up in their career again.

          With a high rate of innovation and change, we are throwing an increasing number of people under the bus in their careers with little hope of catching up to where they once were. This just drives inequality in society higher and higher.

          The rate of innovation grows exponentially and is never really expected to stop. There’s a point, where humans just have no hope of keeping up. No matter how bad it is today, next year is guaranteed to be worse. More people will be thrown under the bus, and be forced to downgrade their income expectations, while a few, manage to soar higher with great wealth.

          • Curt, I agree with a lot of what you posted.

            Each person or family has to decide. Ultimately it is a choice. In the 80s we were being told robotic equipment will be replacing the average person. 30 years later, it’s even more important to adjust.

            NAIT/SAIT in AB, other technical colleges throughout Canada have had their robotic and like programs explode with classes full and constantly expanding.

            Curt, I agree with you the rate is growing quickly. You and I didn’t have ipads when we were growing up. Now our kids have access almost at 1 years old to this tech. Who knows what cool stuff they will think of when they are of age.

            Everyone should be taking post secondary education. High School is just not enough. With the education relatively inexpensive, it is a must. I encourage all to do so – even at 50.

          • I’m a bit older than you are Gunzo. I’m 56. I didn’t even have electronic calculators when I grew up in the 60’s. We had to actually learn to multiply and divide using a pencil and paper! My dad used a slide rule to do calculations at home. My mom did have a mechanical adding machine to balance the check book. And a mechanical typewriter for writing letters. I did have TV, but it was black and white, and there were only 4 channels to watch. Most electronics of the day like the TVs still used vacuum tubes, and not transistors. I was in high school when the first hand held electronic calculators showed up and cost $400 which translates to over $2000 in today’s money. There were no home computers. No fax machines. No email. No consumer video cameras. No CDs or MP3 players. No wireless phones. No answering machines. No UPC scanners. No ATMs. No gps. No texting, and of course, no internet for the masses. But NASA still managed to put a man on the moon, using slide rulers. Though the world was full of mechanical and electronic machines, humans were still the key to all business. Other than simple vending machines, there were no business where the machines really did the work.

            Today, it’s hard to even find a human to talk to when we buy things. I buy gas for my car by “talking to” a gas pump that gives me gas and takes my money. Music and books are just a click away from being downloaded to my iPhone. Money comes from the ATM instead of a bank teller. I don’t do research by going to a library and asking for help, I just open the google app on my phone and talk to it. A lot of retail stores are staffed by people that don’t even seem to know what the store carries. I buy food and check myself out at the grocery store.

            It used to take a LOT of people, skilled at their jobs, to do all that day to day work and paper pushing that is now all done by all our machines. And now, all the world really needs, is people who know how to build machines, and know how to build a business based around the machines.

            Look at the current Obamacare problems. It’s all about the machine they failed to build correctly. It’s this idea that if we don’t have the right machine to do the job, then the job can’t be done. The current business failure is all about the lack of a machine, and not the lack of a good staff. We as a society, are offended, that we might have deal with some incompetent person on the phone, instead of being given a good web site to buy from!

            Yes Gunzo, the key for new kids is to get a good education to learn now to build machines and run businesses becuase that’s the only job that is really left that pays anything you can live on.

            But more important, is the fact that this can’t work. I’m a long time engineer that loves building machines and building business around machines. But I also know that MOST people, suck at the job of designing and building new machines. I’ve worked with tons of people that tried to learn the craft by getting an education, but they still suck at it. They are very bright, well educated and dedicated people, but their skill sets lie elsewhere, and not in engineering. The world used to NEED lots of good people like that to make the economy work. It just doesn’t need them now, as much as it once did, and the need for people in the workplace is quickly fading away.

            The big problem society faces, is not one that can be fixed with more education.

  3. Has anyone noticed that the incredible increases in productivity from technology has not resulted in any reduction in the work week (40 hours) or vacation time (start at 2 weeks, maybe negotiate 3 weeks, 4 weeks after 10 years if you still have the same job). Or maybe that wages have increased at a much more leisurely pace?

    I’m a semi-retired IT software developer. They get paid well but it’s a profession that can involve a lot of overtime (unpaid, ’cause you’re a professional), or being on call, or not being on vacation when you are. They promise time off in lieu of overtime. When you try to collect it, they ask you why.

    Has anyone noticed that the top 1% has collected 95% of this gain? Just sayin’.

    • The reason for this is working hours have actually increased, people are being asked to do much more unpaid overtime for fear of risking their job down to a machine of some sort. Many companies would like to keep people on rather than replace their work through automation but it has to be just as cost effective to do so.

    • I’ve always felt that unpaid overtime should be illegal. I’m not sure if it would be in any way enforceable, but if you’re working hours for your employer, you ought to be paid for them. If one person isn’t enough to cover amount of work in a sensible amount of time, they should hire another. Encouraging employees to work for free is pure exploitation.

  4. Aha! Spin Robots! Now we’re really getting somewhere.

  5. Yeah. This is a great article. For starters, of course automation always kills job, but I think innovation creates jobs. Better get a higher education to have a better opportunity I think.

  6. Time to start considering a Guaranteed annual income


  8. Damn, I’m sorry didn’t mean to use all caps…..

  9. I see in an astonishingly childish way that people really think that money is necessary. And that they don’t understand the following simple principle. If you create a technology and the purpose of that technology is to increase our supply of goods and services and to make it unnecessary for anyone to perform drudgery then of cource you’re getting rid of work. So we have the amazing idiocy to penalize getting rid of work as something called unemployment” – Alan Watts.

  10. And all this time I thought “outsourcing” was killing ALL our jobs.

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