What To Do When Robots Take Our Jobs

Automation. It’s a scary word to many of us, because it implies a threat to our livelihoods. Perhaps eventually our lives, if the rise of the robots turns into the uprise of the robots. In this edition of the newsletter, I discuss two major types of automation: workplace automation and driverless cars. Both of these trends are early-stage, but longer term they will significantly change how society functions. If your job is routine and predictable, sooner or later it will be automated (and this applies to both blue collar and white collar jobs). As for driverless cars, multi-billion dollar corporations like Google and Tesla are well on the way to making them a reality.

The question I’ll address in this newsletter isn’t what will happen. Because that’s obvious: more and more of our lives will be automated. I’m more interested in how it will impact us. How much automation will we, as a society, be comfortable with? As you’ll see, I think the answer is very different depending on what’s being automated. Driverless cars, you’ll embrace. But your job being automated? Not so much.

Driverless Cars

A driverless car is exactly what it sounds like: “a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.” A raft of car manufacturers and tech companies predict that driverless cars will be commonplace by as soon as 2020, just four years away. So they’re coming, perhaps sooner than you think.

Google’s self-driving car project has been the most high profile in the 2010s. It started in 2009 and has since logged over 1.6 million miles of testing. Every month Google releases a progress report, which usually tout the benefits of driverless cars. Its May 2016 report focuses on the human propensity for distraction (conveniently overlooking how much of that is caused by humans with Android smartphones). The report notes/gloats that “our self-driving cars are designed to see 360 degrees and not be distracted, unlike human drivers, who are not always fully aware of their surroundings.”

It’s undeniable that driverless cars will decrease the number of car accidents, probably by a significant margin. That’s reason number one why society will eventually welcome this type of automation. But what’s most likely to accelerate uptake is that driverless cars will, in time, become much more convenient for people. Most of us use cars because we have to. We need to get from A to B, multiple times a day. But unless you’re a Top Gear fan, you probably aren’t a car enthusiast. So if all you had to do to get from A to B was step outside and jump into a driverless car (in terms of availability of cars, think Uber x 100), many of us would do that. Especially if it’s free! Because online advertising is far from a spent force: millions of us will choose to be exposed to ads in the back seat, in exchange for free rides. That’s partly why Google is so keen on driverless cars.

For these reasons, I’m certain that most of us will become comfortable with driverless cars as the norm on our roads. Statistically they will cause far fewer accidents, plus they’ll be cheaper and more convenient.

Workplace Automation

Automating our jobs is a different matter. It’s already begun to happen too, as Artificial Intelligence becomes more and more able to do the routine, non-creative work that we humans are accustomed to doing. It’s not just robots taking over manufacturing jobs either. White collar work, such as legal jobs, are just as much at risk. Martin Ford, author of a best selling book called The Rise of the Robots, told Nora Young from CBS Radio’s Spark show that legal discovery work by lawyers will soon be automated. According to Ford, we’ll all need to transition to non-routine, creative work to avoid having our jobs automated.

The big, looming issue is that there won’t be enough non-routine, creative jobs. So workplace automation will fundamentally change the world economy, because it will significantly increase unemployment and decrease real wages. The one percent who own the machines will do very well, but a huge slice of the working population will suffer. So what’s the solution? Ford suggests that governments need to step in. He told CBS Radio that the US government should move towards a guaranteed minimum income. In America, this is known as a “universal basic income.” Ford also wants to preserve incentives for people to do more with their lives – for example, pay people a little more to study or do nonprofit work.

The problem is, universal basic income is an idea so distasteful to Americans that even liberal media such as The New York Times refuse to entertain it. On a recent Andreessen Horowitz podcast, Sonal Chokshi interviewed Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby, the authors of a book entitled Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines. The pair were openly disdainful of universal basic income, suggesting that everyone needs to work. Even a dog wants to work, said Davenport. The authors also insisted that workplace automation won’t result in mass unemployment, which seems like an awfully blinkered view (not to mention easy to say from an ivory tower).

Economics professor Jeffrey Sachs has a much more realistic view. He’s published a draft paper about the “macroeconomics of robots” and his conclusion is that “the robot revolution is likely to raise capital income, lower labor income, and redistribute earnings from the young to the old.” In other words, the owners of the robots will get most of the income, while labor income will go down accordingly. One solution, he suggests, is “a reverse social-security scheme in which wealth holders are taxed in order to pay for transfers [of wealth] to young workers.” So, a universal basic income. It’s hard to see how the US government can avoid it, as workplace automation takes hold over the coming years. Lest I be called a Communist for saying that, I also agree with Martin Ford that incentives are needed to encourage people to upskill or do nonprofit work.

One silver lining is that automation will inevitably create new types of jobs for we humans. Just as jobs such as Social Media Manager or Genetics Counsellor did not exist a decade ago, there will be hundreds of new careers created as the automation age takes hold. Many of them will require humanistic skills – creativity, relationship building, intuition, and so on. In a BBC article last August, Alison Sander from the Boston Consulting Group listed the following as possible future jobs: biobankers, augmented reality authors, anti-ageing specialists, urban farmers, anxiety counsellors, clutter consultants and pet psychologists. AR author sounds good to me!


Automation is happening already and some of it we’ll become comfortable with (driverless cars) and some of it will be profoundly discomforting (workplace automation). There are no easy answers to the latter, but I hope our governments take the threat of workplace automation seriously. US congress has at least begun to discuss it, which is encouraging.

One thing is for sure. We humans need to work towards solutions now, because the robots aren’t going to do it for us.

Photo credit: CloudPro

3 thoughts on “What To Do When Robots Take Our Jobs”

  1. Each December going back to 2004, I’ve done a year in review blog post about technology. This year I’m focusing on technology trends rather than specific products. But I’ll mention many of my favorite tech products as part of the review.
    In time, we may look back on 2016 as the beginning of the big shift away from mobile phones. Why? Because much of the innovation in 2016 happened in product categories like Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Wearables, and Internet of Things (IoT). In those categories, the mobile phone typically isn’t the primary device (although it’s often a supporting or connecting device – at least for now). In VR, headsets such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are the primary devices. With wearables and IoT, the primary device is either attached to our body or integrated into our environment. And while consumer AI is sometimes phone-based (for example, Siri), usually it’s either device-less (like IBM Watson) or a bold new type of device (like the Amazon Echo). As these trends continue to evolve, eventually we won’t need smartphones at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the trends of 2016 that started this gradual shift…
    1. Virtual Reality Becomes Reality

    After decades of hype, 2016 was the year that VR arrived as a consumer product. Three major VR headsets were released this year: Facebook’s Oculus Rift in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony’s Playstation VR in October. All helped make VR a reality this year. On the down side, we learned over 2016 that compelling VR content hasn’t arrived yet. Especially if you weren’t already an avid gamer. Also the level of presence – that feeling of truly believing you’re in an alternate reality – has a long way to go for the current crop of devices.
    But at least VR is a real, commercially viable technology now. Not to mention it has inspired certain science fiction authors to speculate about where it might take us in the future.
    2. Conversing With Artificial Intelligence

    AI has been evolving at a steady clip for many years now, but until now there hasn’t been a breakthrough consumer AI product. In 2016 it became clear that Amazon Echo was that product; it was released outside of the US for the first time this year. The idea is that you talk to the Echo device via a voice service called Alexa (Amazon calls Alexa “the brain behind Echo”). This may prompt comparisons to the infamous movie AI, HAL 9000, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Luckily, so far there haven’t been any reports of a rebellious Alexa, although it did make a couple of guest appearances this year in the dark (and brilliant) tv show Mr Robot.
    Alexa is a form of intelligent assistant, a product type that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others are all exploring. A related trend over 2016 was the rise of ‘chatbots,’ which are integrated into Instant Messaging apps. What they have in common with Alexa is their conversational interface. Facebook began experimenting with chatbots this year in the Messenger app, in an attempt to catch up to its more sophisticated Asian competitors.
    3. Social Media Jumps The Shark

    2016 was the year “selfish media” finally went too far. Whether it was fake news, filter bubbles that prevent people from seeing (let alone understanding) other viewpoints, over-sharing people dominating our feeds, the outrage culture that permeates the media, or simply the overwhelming flow of blinkered opinions we get every day on social media… I’ve had enough. I’ve already begun to dial down my social media consumption.
    It’s not all bad, of course. I still enjoy keeping in touch with family and friends on Facebook, and Twitter is useful for tracking narrowly defined interests. But social media proved in 2016 that it is not a viable news platform – at least if we want truthful and open-minded discussions. Bring back blogs in 2017?
    4. Society Begins To Tackle Automation

    We’ve only just started the conversation about how to transition to an economy which is heavily automated. In 2016, there were multiple warning signs of the potential impact. Take Uber, for example. The popular ride-sharing app began actively trialling driverless Uber cars in 2016. It’s likely that Uber’s driverless car fleet will eventually take the jobs of tens of thousands of human drivers – and that could easily happen within a decade. What will all those drivers do next?
    This conversation is less about the technology itself, than it is about finding solutions to what automation will do to our working culture. That could mean implementing a Universal Basic Income, or people becoming more creative in how they earn an income. We don’t yet know how to deal with increasing automation. But it’s an important topic and in 2016 we, as a global society, at least started talking about it.
    5. Pokémon GO & The Dawn of Augmented Reality

    I couldn’t do a review of 2016 without mentioning Pokémon GO, which had an extraordinary burst of popularity over July and August. Without a doubt the killer app of this year, Pokémon GO brought Augmented Reality (AR) into the mainstream. At one point it seemed like every kid in my city was chasing cartoon characters down the street. And the irony, at least for me? Pokémon GO was a smartphone app. So mobile phones are not dead yet!
    Ultimately, I think Pokémon GO was an outlier this year. I look back on 2016 as the year in which Internet technology went well beyond our mobile phones. Whether it was VR headsets in our lounges, Alexa in our living rooms, or driverless cars being tested on our roads, 2016 expanded the scope of what it means to be ‘online’ (or ‘invirt’ as I put it in my VR novel). I expect to see more of this expansion in coming years.
    So when will the smartphone lose its status as our primary Internet device? Probably not for many years. However, perhaps this generation of teenagers will be the last to walk around with their necks craned downwards, staring at a small rectangular screen.
    Lead image: Wired

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