Industrial automation and robotics, in combination with industrial automation translations, will shape the future of the workplace. One could say that worker-less workplaces were part of what was predicted in the 1977 book The View from Serendip, Arthur C. Clarke – the patron saint of hard science sci-fi – described what he imagined life would be like in 2001:
“The main result of all these (technological) developments will be to eliminate 99 percent of human activity, and to leave our descendants faced with a future of utter boredom, where the main problem in life is deciding which of the several hundred TV channels to select.”
Though his prediction of TV channel overabundance was discerningly accurate, people still have a lot to do, with average hours worked per week for fulltime employees ranging from below 30 (Netherlands) to over 60 (Japan). But almost 40 years later, an increasing number of high-profile experts are worried that technological advances – particularly in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous robotics – are bringing us ever closer to worker-less workplaces.
A 2013 Oxford University study, “The Future of Employment,” came to the startling conclusion that out of 702 jobs spanning a broad range of employment categories, 47% were at imminent risk of computerization while 19% carried a moderate risk. Even more startling, many of the most at-risk jobs are what we think of as traditional white-collar positions; accountant, auditor, sports writer, underwriter, paralegal, and tax preparer. For the economy and society, this could mean amazingly positive or terrifyingly negative consequences.
To begin with the worst-case scenario—unless there is a radical restructuring of the way resources are distributed, economic inequality is likely to increase exponentially. Owners of robotic factories and computerized companies will reap the vast majority of the benefits of technological development while common people have less and less steady work. We may already be witnessing the birth of this unemployment-apocalypse with the post-2008 jobless recovery now underway.
On the other hand, a slightly more positive prediction: in the face of this challenge, businesses and governments will soon start working together to retrain displaced workers for 21st century jobs—the maintenance of autonomous machinery as well as the host of other as yet unimagined job categories that are bound to be created. Meanwhile, the newfound freedom from repetitive drudgery will allow people to pursue their passions.
Like all tools, artificial intelligence and robots may end up being used for good or for ill. The direction that policy makers and business owners take the technology isn’t easy to predict but it’s something they should think about. After all, creating a future that we want to live in is the most human job of all.