Are you worried about your job security? If not, think again. On November 8 this year, China’s state news agency, Xinhua News gave a news reader his debut. He isn’t your ordinary newsroom person though. He did his job very professionally on his debut, making no mistakes and read news twice, once in English, and then in Chinese. People did criticize him though, saying he was very flat, single-spaced, had no pace, or rhythm. The newsreader began his broadcast by claiming that he could do his job for 24 hours a day. But this wasn’t any figure of speech. He can literally work tirelessly. How so? He isn’t blood, muscles, and bones, he’s wired. He is a robot.
Modeled on real-life Xinhua news anchor, Zhang Zao, the world saw its first ever Artificial Intelligence (AI) news broadcast. This is a remarkable technological feat, but if this is a sign of things to come, maybe none of your jobs are secure anymore. We have already achieved commercial automation in factories. Robots are now being deployed in restaurants as waiters, and the advent of autonomously driven vehicles may be just around the corner. Robots have even successfully performed surgeries, composed music and produced remarkable art-work. With the current rate of advancement in robotics, automation and AI, many more fields could come under threat soon.
A robot can perform its task continuously, tirelessly, routinely, and efficiently; much better than its human counterpart. Robotics systems have high installation costs, but their standing costs are very affordable, and may overall be cheaper for an employer when compared to providing employees with monthly salaries and other facilities.
New technologies have upended industries for a long time. But the introduction of engines and automobiles did not steal labor from men. What is different today then? Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) feels that it is the pace at which digital technologies grow in power, together with signs that computers are already diminishing the role of human labor.
An example is Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, a robotic humanoid torso with arms, claw-like grips and a head with an LCD face. Baxter is designed to replace factory line workers employed in repetitive but not-yet-automated tasks. His ‘hands’ can be swapped out for suction cups or different grippers to allow him to perform different tasks. That flexibility and rapid retraining, together with Baxter’s low price relative to other industrial robots, opens up the possibility of automating a plethora of new roles.
Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne from Oxford Martin School & Faculty of Philosophy in the UK predict, “According to our estimate, 47 percent of total US employment is in the high-risk category, meaning that associated occupations are potentially automatable over some unspecified number of years, perhaps a decade or two.” During the coming decades, they forecast two “waves of computerization” during which different categories of jobs will be washed away, with no field of employment left untouched.
The rate of technological advancements has been unfathomable, and it is only going upwards from here. The future may be bright, but is it bright for everyone?