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Robots Aren't Coming For Jobs: AI Is Already Taking Them

Robots Aren't Coming For Jobs: AI Is Already Taking Them

By Erik Sherman Oct 25, 2018, 03:54pm

LONDON, ENGLAND: Pepper the robot meets Eurostar customers at St Pancras International station in London, England. Pepper will be available to entertain customers, offering information about their journey before departure. (Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images for Eurostar)
There's a lot of talk whether robots, automation, and artificial intelligence will take over an increasing number of jobs and supplant people. Supporters say that businesses can run more efficiently and free up employees to do more meaningful work. Skeptics say the jobs will go and so will the people.
The thing is, the change is already happening and anyone who tells you that all companies will shift workers to something with a higher value either has either taken one too many hits off a jug of artificially flavored fruit punch or hasn't a clue as to how things actually work in most companies.
First, the inroads are happening every day and frequently with jobs that pay less and attract people with fewer marketable skills. One example my son in Washington, D.C. saw one night was a squat robot, moving along the sidewalk at night using GPS for navigation. It carried someone's dinner inside.
When the devices began to appear last year, coverage was largely positive, as you can see from this NPR piece. It did address the question of replacing people:
The company sees robots as a supplemental form of delivery, not a replacement, he says. Robots like these ideally will complete deliveries that normally wouldn't have been placed with the human-based delivery options of the past.
"We have people that drive cars, they walk, they bike, and we see robots as another type of vehicle that enables a whole bunch of different things from a delivery perspective," Cook says.
Legislation has passed to make self-driving robots like these legal on the sidewalks in the District of Columbia and Virginia, and similar laws are in the works in Florida and Idaho. Other states also have expressed interest.
It might be an additional choice — for now. Have enough of the robots on the move and you don't need so many people walking, at least for local deliveries. That's the problem. Maybe not all the jobs disappear, but there are fewer and the savings from less spending on workers goes into the pockets of a company and its owners.
The same is true throughout the food service industry, one of the largest lower-wage employment sectors. In early October, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on "robot restaurants. One had machines that made better-quality burgers, including grinding beef in-house, and could deliver them at two per minute. There was a bar that used robots to mix and serve drinks, including delivering clever lines to customers. Robot-made pizzas that baked in delivery trucks that had built-in ovens.
According to market analyst firm Gartner, 75% of finance departments will employ automation by 2020 to handle manual tasks and free people up for other work.
Years ago, I spoke with an executive from a company that was automated some types of work. I asked, as even then this was the standard answer you'd hear, whether personnel would be shifted for higher-value work. A moment of candor I've found remarkable in business followed. The executive said, "You know, that's what we say, but really it's about eliminating the jobs."
Of course, it is. If people were needed in other positions, they already would have been hired. Businesses typically look for people who possess skills and don't commonly consider training the displaced to do something else. It does happen on occasion. I spoke with a major firm some time back about how automation was making many in their accounting department unnecessary. The company was training people to become software developers. The probable reason: higher-demand skills like programming are difficult to find. I also suspect the total cost of training and eventual salary would be lower than trying to hire people with experience who could command higher salaries.
But, by and large, companies will eliminate positions because that's what they're supposed to do. Keep people on for unnecessary jobs? Why would an executive do that?
Anything predictable enough is fair game at this point. BlackRock, the world's largest investment fund, plans to have computers pick stocks for actively managed funds. And three dozen workers, who likely once made an excellent living, are no longer with the company.
The problem for society is that modern capitalism has lost its way. Shareholder interests have been touted as the most important, a development largely, although not entirely, that sits at the feet of the late Milton Friedman.
If you've ever studied calculus, you learned the impossibility of maximizing an equation for more than one variable. If management sees its job, and financial self-interest, in driving up stock prices, everything else will ultimately have to play second fiddle.
But businesses and the economy aren't simplistic equations whose solutions are listed in the back of the book. They represent complex systems for which mathematical models are horrendously complex. Push the system's parameters to favor one aspect you lose stability. Eventually the system will right itself, but in a way that may not be recognizable, or desirable.
Major revolutions, like historical ones in France and Russia, were largely the result of too long a period during which the benefits of a total society were funneled to a relative few. Or look at the Gilded Age in the U.S. There wasn't a revolution per se, but the country saw massive unrest and violence that helped lead to modern labor unions. You can only expect people to wait so long.
And then, modern times we have an interconnected world. Russia, France, or any other major country cannot contain vast turmoil within its borders without the effects spilling out. Disruption in one area can spread everywhere.
Maybe people will begin to take a different approach and consider sustainable actions. But given the predictions for global warming, which should scare the soul out of anyone, don't seem to be driving enough change, why expect companies to be smarter about this topic?
I'm a freelance journalist, author, and writer whose work has appeared in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Technology Review, Chief Executive, and The Fiscal Times. Also, I write regularly for I'm the author or co-...

Erik Sherman writes about business, technology, economics, and public policy. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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