The ascent of our glorious robot overlords

Home / Culture Evolved
By Sean Marshall
@Quantumrun
Apr 02, 2015,  3:04 AM

At some point in your life, you may have heard of the woes of those who have recently lost their jobs, which range from the common “it's not my fault” or the ever popular “they'll be sorry.” In today’s world, however, these age-old gripes are gradually changing into something along the lines of “that robot took my job” or “apparently a computer program can easily replace my bachelor’s degree.” Sure, this might sound like an exaggeration (nowadays, at least), but such concern is actually understandable. Machines are really getting better than people at doing certain tasks and as a result they are starting to replace many blue collar workers around the globe.

This transition has evidently planted seeds of worry amongst many. They believe that it is only a matter of time before the world of work is dominated by machines – from self-driving cars eliminating taxis to futuristic vending machines taking the jobs of fast food workers. These people might actually be justified in their terror, especially if we consider the unemployment statistics reported on the media.

According to recent reports from The Economist, for instance, “over the past three decades labour's share of output has shrunk globally from 64% to 59%.” In this context, labour works are those associated with manufacturing and assembly jobs. Although, the data at first doesn’t seem like that large of a drop, the pessimists of the working world believe that this is just the beginning of a larger decline.

Another example comes from a statistic released by the Government of Canada, which shows the country’s unemployment rate is at 6.8% as of February 2015 – roughly equates to 6,600 people out of work. For an entire country with a population estimated at around 35 million that doesn’t seem too bad, but what’s worrying is that a good part of these numbers might potentially be due to the introduction of machines in the workforce. As an official from Stats Canada explained, “there is no doubt people losing jobs to machines, but as of right now, [it’s just that] Canadians don't know the exact numbers.”

If the reports above haven’t convinced you enough, many predictions have also been released by academia to further corroborate the concern. One of them is from Oxford Martin School (a research branch of Oxford University), which reported “45% of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades.” The finding was determined through a statistical modeling method involving more than 700 jobs on O'Net, an online career network. To top all this, Bill Gates has even said, “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set.”

Finally, dozens of publications have also continued to express this issue. In the past few years, we can see that books giving explanations on why unemployment due to machines is so rampant has become increasingly prominent. Some books such as The Anatomy Of Job Loss: The How, Why and Where of Employment Decline are even outlining areas of employment to avoid due to the inevitability of machines taking all the jobs.

So given all this context, the following questions may be asked: is there really a problem with machines taking the jobs of blue collar workers? Or is this just a lot of fear over nothing? If the report and prediction is likely to be correct why aren’t there more individuals rioting in the streets? Why isn’t there more uproar and demand for sustainable jobs? Ren Macpherson may be able to answer some of these questions.

Ren Macpherson had spent 10 years of his life working for a car company. As a worker, his job involved controlling a robotic arm that attached gas tanks to vehicles. It might sound boring to some, but it's the life and blood of North American labour industry, and more importantly it's exactly the types of jobs that are being hit the worst by the machines.

According to him, there has always been job loss due to machines, but companies often make the whole situation becomes much more complicated than many would believe. For instance, the company he works for shutdowns their warehouse from two weeks to a month every time a new vehicle is coming out. “This is when machines are retooled or new ones brought in,” he said, “[during this period] we all get reassigned to new jobs often ones that originally took a few of us now might only need one.”

He continued to explain that companies try to keep as many employees as they can, but certainly not everyone is lucky enough to make the cut. “If your job no longer exists thanks to new robots they have installed, you're [definitely] in trouble,” he said. He further added that seniority also plays a huge role in saving one’s job. “If you've been there a long time, your boss puts you somewhere else. If you're the low man on the totem pole, you get laid off so nothing happens directly and therefore no one has the conscious frame of mind to make that link and protest.” He felt that this might answer why people aren't up in arms about job loss to machines. “They just don't realize it.”

Finally, Macpherson believed that the automotive industry will continue to be affected by machines, but he reckoned it wouldn’t be too awful. For him, of more significance is that we may need a real change in thinking to end the threat of unemployment due to machines. “Eliminating the redundant jobs in society has to happen in order to make things better.” He goes on to say that “that means we need to think about what's not being eliminated by machines and why.”

Fortunately, not all industries are in crisis and Rory Rudd can attest to this. Rudd has spent the last three years working as a pre-flight baggage screener at Toronto Pearson International airport and John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport in Mount Hope, Ontario. His job mainly includes patting downs, reading x-rays of baggage, and visual checking on people who want to board commercial airlines.

With the way our new progressive world is going, one can easily imagine that his job would be replaced by machines. For example, the introduction of x-ray machine or high-tech scanners has allowed airport security to accurately scan the contents of passenger’s luggage and detect metal objects such as weapons. However, in a bizarre twist, the machines actually didn’t pose much threat to Rudd's position at Mount Hope’s airport. He pointed out that what has secured his job is human intuition.

“The problem the machine has is that everyone is a threat,” Rudd said.

“Not only do the new machines slow everything down because of their lack of intuition and basic reasoning, it caused so many issues there's no way they would ever replace us.”

Rudd has also come across other issues to give hope to the pessimists that believe machines will replace us all. “It's funny nine out of ten [people] would rather deal with a person then a machine… no one want to use a scanner that completely invades their privacy.”

He further elaborated that person on their first flight may be nervous, jittery and may leave something in their bag they shouldn't just because they don't know. “If I were to see all this, I'd have a conversation with the person and figure out if it's their first time. A machine would raise the alarms making everything worse,” Rudd argued, “I know so long as people want to deal with people over cold emotionless machines there will always be some job security.”

Impact (ONLY use the 'Paste From Word' button to safely copy and paste text from a Word doc) 

Thus, despite troubling statistics and workers’ growing anxiety, there might still be hope. Machines might seem to be capable to do more than humans, but they also still have their own limitations. So long as a machine can't match humans on a personal and emotional level, there will be hope. Even for those who do lose their job, they might still have the opportunity to pursue higher interests. The machines, along with the developments, are here to stay; all we can do is learn to better ourselves in the progress.

Public Release Date: 
2035 to 2040
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