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The Robots Are Coming … For A Piece of Your Paycheck

Topics: Current Events
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In a world where artificial intelligence and automation threaten the livelihood of human beings, a world where the necessity of establishing a universal basic income seems inevitable, a world where inflammatory headlines seed global paranoia, the fear of robots stealing our jobs weighs heavily on the mind of many.

But that threat may be overblown. A recent report suggests future robots won’t steal our jobs, they’ll just skim a little off the top of our paychecks.

Skynet Becomes Self-Aware

According to a new report from Barclays, “we don’t believe that robots will completely replace humans in the workplace any time soon.”

The report explains that humans still outperform robots and computers in two crucial aspects, aspects that will likely keep us from being replaced by Wall-E… for at least a while.

“People retain the upper hand over machines in two important ways:

  1. Sensorimotor skills: People use their senses to process what they see, hear or touch and act accordingly – often subconsciously. Most robots remain far clumsier than a young child.
  2. Cognitive functionality: Much of what humans do daily depends on a capacity to perceive context, learn from experience and make decisions based on incomplete information. Machines can’t, yet.”

This might be comforting information for Neo-Luddites – anyone afraid of losing his or her job to a machine – particularly given the rash of reports predicting, “Automation Could Displace 800 Million Workers Worldwide By 2030,” or similar.

But don’t sleep too easy, technophobes; Even though C-3PO may not take your job, he’ll likely be picking your pocket.

Jobs May Be Safe, but Wages Will Likely Suffer

According to the Barclays report:

“In 2013, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, co-directors of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment at the University of Oxford, wrote that as much as 47% of all US employment was at risk from automation.”

The report points out, however, “most mainstream economists now acknowledge … that there is no such thing as a fixed amount of work,” and “If technology automates away existing jobs, new jobs of a different nature eventually take their place.” The example given is the construction industry, “which a century ago used wheelbarrows and hand shovels as the primary means of moving earth.”

But, “A hundred years later, construction remains one of the biggest employers in most developed countries.”

However, even though jobs may not disappear, specific tasks involved in human-performed jobs may become automated.

The Navitron Autodrive System

Though the trucking industry seems to be continuously threatened by potential automation, and even though self-driving trucks are not yet rolling down America’s highways – or are they? – wage growth for truck drivers has been poor.

According to the Barclays report, “The National Transportation Institute estimates that the median trucker wage in 1980 was a little over $38,000. By 2013, the median trucker wage was still close to $40,000.”

The reason for this remarkably slow growth in wages? Technology has made certain tasks associated with driving a truck considerably easier, or in some cases completely automated. From the Barclays report:

“Power steering in long-haul trucks was an important development for the trucking industry. Suddenly, physical strength was not a prerequisite to drive a ‘big rig’, expanding the potential pool of truckers. The introduction of rear-view cameras, cruise control, automatic braking technology and radar all made it easier to drive a long-haul truck. What was once a skilled job became less so with every new improvement, which in turn expanded the potential (labor) pool greatly. But it also explains why wage growth has been disappointing in the sector, even with lots of job creation.”

If a job’s easier to perform, it requires less specialization and/or skill. And if a job requires less skill, it likely won’t pay very much.

As technology continues to make tricky tasks easier to accomplish, human ability to perform those tasks will be devalued, or even made completely obsolete. And this means lower wages for workers in those jobs, if not a loss of those jobs for good.

Never Send a Human to Do a Machine’s Job

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Barclays predicts a future where our skills and economy have adapted to the rise of the machines.

“Historically, society has always found a way to adapt to both the beneficial and the challenging effects of technological change,” reads the report. “We believe that people will successfully navigate the current period of technological change as they have in previous periods of technological advancement throughout history.”

Not only that, but – at least for now – humans still outperform machines in many, many jobs.

Even Elon Musk, long an evangelist for a future where, “Robots will be able to do everything better than us,” has admitted human workers are tough to beat.

The New York Times recently reported on the problems Musk’s Tesla is having manufacturing their new car, the Tesla Model 3, and noted that, “In production of the Model 3, Mr. Musk gambled by creating an assembly line that relies much more heavily on automated equipment and robots than workers. But it has proved more difficult than he expected to get the machinery to work in harmony.”

“In a tweet over the weekend,” reported the Times, “Mr. Musk acknowledged that ‘excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.’”

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