The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation


no title has been provided for this book
Category: Engineering
Published: 5/15/2018
Looking for ways to handle the transition to a digital economy Robots, artificial intelligence, and driverless cars are no longer things of the distant future. They are with us today and will become increasingly common in coming years, along with virtual reality and digital personal assistants.

Book Summary - The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation By Darrell M. West

Key Insights

Darrell M. West has done extensive research into how automation and robotics will shape the future outlook on the economy. In The Future of Work: Robots, AI and Automation, West addresses the effects on both employment and society in general. An estimated 65% of children today will be doing jobs that don’t yet exist and jobs overall will be diminishing as automation replaces the human workforce. The importance of government to anticipate and address these impending challenges is vital.

Key Points

Artificial Intelligence is Impacting Society

The significant effects of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics on employment and the economy are only beginning to surface, but the future brought on by automation is both exciting and alarming.

It is thrilling to see all the ways life can be improved by technology. AI can augment human capability by maximizing decision-making capabilities as well as operational capacities with complex algorithms. Such activities as finance, transportation, defense, and even space exploration are all enhanced by the possibilities created with AI.  Technology can process huge amounts of data to rapidly-produce solutions to multifaceted problems.

AI enhances public safety with such technology as body cameras on police officers. It can oversee the safety of water supplies with the ability to detect dangerous chemicals. Traffic congestion can be reduced as well as pollution through ever-improving technology.

At the same time, it is disturbing to recognize how the Internet of Things (IoT) infringes on personal privacy, as most devices don’t have high levels of protection. Critics point out that virtual reality headsets collect a massive amount of information such as head movements, eye rolls, facial expressions, and other data that can create a “heatmap” of a person’s behavior and emotion. Such data is highly personal and experts warn that its use should be controlled, as one example of the intimate data that is being collected which threatens privacy.

Employment is being Dangerously Disrupted by Technology

In addition to threats to personal privacy, it is equally if not more upsetting to see how quickly AI and robotics are replacing the work of human beings. The replacement employment generated by technology is not equal to the number of jobs that have been taken over. Industrialized society is on the threshold of a world with much less work.

Cornell University engineer Hod Lipson commented, “For a long time the common understanding was that technology was destroying jobs but also creating new and better ones. Now the evidence is that technology is destroying jobs and indeed creating new and better ones, but also fewer ones.” Because of the recession in 2008-09, many companies downsized their employees for budget reasons. After learning to operate on lighter workforces, especially using automation, those jobs were not brought back at the same numbers.

Businesses no longer need large workforces to perform essential tasks. Today, companies can function well with smaller staff as well as reliance on independent contractors or even outsourcing certain tasks to other countries for much less expense.  We are reaching a state where the number of U.S.-based full-time jobs is small, which is especially true of firms working in digital commerce.

Andrew Puzder, a former CEO of a major restaurant business including Hardee’s, praised the work of robotics in place of human employees, “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall or discrimination case.” McDonald’s has announced its plans to install digital ordering kiosks in place of cashiers at 2,500 of its American restaurants.

Not Enough Work Will be a Serious Economic Challenge

U.S. Secretary Lawrence Summers wrote, “If current trends continue, it could well be that a generation from now a quarter of middle-aged men will be out of work at any given moment.” Later, Summers added to his prediction, “We may have a third of men between the ages of 25 and 54 not working by the end of this half-century [2050].”

When business executives are asked about their hiring plans across the next five years, relative to using robotics, 58% said they would be reducing jobs while only 16% responded they would increase jobs. West cites that up to 375 million livelihoods may disappear due to new technologies. An international study revealed that half of the reduction of worker’s income in the developed world is connected to advancing technology.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has warned that “robots will be able to do everything better than us.” He also stated, “it is the biggest risk we face as a civilization… There will certainly be a lot of job disruption.”

The Concept of Employment Needs to be Expanded

An increasing trend is for companies to hire contracted employees. The result is the term “fissured workplace,” coined by David Weil, a professor at Brandies University. It represents intermittent and unreliable employment without benefits as companies seek the cheapest labor available. Since 2010, more than 50% of the new jobs have been contract/temporary.

West suggests that a new definition of employment should be expanded.  What is happening in the United Kingdom can serve as a model. Social assistance is growing with job credit for such services as volunteer work. Part-time work, parenting and mentoring should be considered “employment,” but, according to West, all of this will require a new “social contract” in which such essential services become the replacement jobs for those removed by technology.

In The Future 0f Work, the importance of discussions about how to “protect society” from these technological job disruptions needs to be happening. Without them, social havoc will ensue. West suggests that there will need to be major reforms in the U.S. political system and its welfare system to avoid being overwhelmed by the growing problem.

Learning is Critical to Adapt in a World of Artificial Intelligence

It is estimated that 65% of youth will be doing jobs that don’t exist today. Jobs will become obsolete. Economist Andrew McAfee wrote, “It is frustrating that our primary education system is doing a pretty good job at turning out the kinds of workers we needed 50 years ago.” West notes that critical thinking, data analysis, communication and teamwork matter, and school curriculum falls short in all these areas. Tech-savvy students are needed. People who are adaptive, who can learn and relearn are essential, and this transformation must happen soon to close the gap between workforce qualifications and worker capabilities.

West strongly advocates for lifetime learning in order to be resilient and adapt to constant change as well as an awareness of what studies are most needed. Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are where the future is headed. “According to the U.S. Department of Education, there will be a 14 percentage-point increase in STEM jobs between 2010 and 2020.” However, “only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.”

Addressing Economic Inequality in the United States

West asserts that the government needs to create “runways” to transition into the new economy. Without preparation to assist society forward in the burgeoning trend of automation in place of human work, political discontent will arise. As it is, economic inequality is a problem in the U.S., according to West. He asserts that government intervention will be necessary as technological advances push more and more unskilled laborers out and widen the gap between rich and poor. Socially responsible actions are deemed necessary to ensure a sustainable future, including wealth redistribution. According to West, those who control the technology and receive the highest concentrations of the wealth as a result of it need to support turning such activities as mentoring, parenting, and even education into employment for those without work due to the influx of automation.

The Main Takeaway:

In The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation, Darrell M. West reveals changes to employment and the economy resulting from the new era of technology. Through artificial intelligence and robotics, automation is significantly replacing the work of humans while not generating nearly as many jobs as it is taking. West explores the impact this will have on politics, education, and how society defines employment in the future.

About the Author

Darrell M. West is the Vice President and Director of Governance Studies and Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. He is an author, political scientist and political commentator.

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