Spark

What will you do when a robot steals your job?

I for one welcome our robot overlords.
That report isn't gonna write itself. (Michelle Parise)
Listen7:00

This story first aired in January, 2016.

As a culture, we've long had the fantasy that new technologies are going to liberate us from the drudgery of work. We've toggled between that, and a narrative of fear - fear that out-of-control technology will outwit us, from 2001 a Space Odyssey to Ex Machina.

That sci fi dystopia looked awfully familiar when we first put this episode together back in January. At the time, a new report had just come out from the World Economic Forum, timed to the start of their meeting in Davos. The Future of Jobs report argues that the next five years will see a net loss of 5 million jobs. That's spread across about a dozen leading economies, from India and China to Germany and the US. Canada wasn't among the countries studied, but there's no reason to think we'd be immune to the trend. The culprit? The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Humanoid robots work with employees in the assembly line at a factory in Tokyo, Japan. (REUTERS)

After the steam technology revolution, the electricity revolution, and the rise of electronics, comes the revolution of a set of technologies familiar to you if you listen to Spark: robotics and A.I., cloud computing, the Internet of Things and smart cities, big data, 3D printing, and biotechnology. A world where digital technologies are not just one sector, but part of virtually everything around us. All of these technologies together are set to have a big impact on workers' abilities to keep their jobs between now and 2020.  

We've talked about this scary scenario before on Spark. Back in 2014, MIT research scientist and author Andy McAfee described it as the coming of a second machine age, marked largely by automation that outstrips the ability to create new jobs. The least threatened jobs may well be those that involve human skills beyond the simply technical, to physical, creative, and social skills.

Andrew McAfee, co-author of The Second Machine Age, argues that because of the encroachment of artificial intelligence on employment, we need to take concrete steps as individuals and societies to help manage the issue. 8:55

Andy McAfee's idea of the kinds of very human skills needed in the rapidly emerging economy is important because it may be a way for young people to position themselves for the new economic reality. The thing is, according to the World Economic Forum, the job losses of the Fourth Industrial Revolution aren't going to hit everyone equally.

Two thirds of job losses will be in "white collar office jobs" like administration. In manufacturing and production jobs, there will be job losses for people who aren't able to upgrade skills to work alongside the new technologies.

Another job casualty? Women. Not only are women underrepresented in the STEM-based jobs that will see growth, but they're overrepresented in those endangered clerical and office jobs.

Finally, the report predicts that job losses will hit many emerging economies hard, as lower wages lose some of their competitive advantage. The danger is not just job loss, but an increase in inequality, with good jobs for those in technical or skilled positions. Or distinctly human, soft skills.

But if changing technology continues to outstrip our ability to create new jobs from that new technology, what happens further down the road? A couple of years ago on Spark, we talked to author Martin Ford about a future in which automation and artificial intelligence make structural unemployment a permanent reality. He made the case for a future where everyone received a guaranteed wage, whether or not they had a job.

If we look at science fiction, all the way back to Dr. Frankenstein, we humans are the ones who create the technologies that run amok and threaten us, fuelled by hubris and a remarkable inability to foresee unintended consequences. This year, science fiction started to look a lot like straight up reality.

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