Americans worry that technology will replace much of the work typically performed by humans, the New York Times recently reported in its article “The Robots Are Coming. Prepare for Trouble.” But this certainly isn’t news. Typists fretted over word processing computers, the whaling industry lashed out against the spread of fossil fuels, and Captain Ned Ludd, the namesake of Luddites, famously (or at least apocraphylly) destroyed weaving looms because they supplanted human labor. “Yet the danger we are facing isn’t really about technology,” noted David Deming in his NYT piece. “It’s about politics and economic fairness. Whether the pain and the benefits of artificial intelligence are equitably distributed.” The staffing industry isn’t immune, but perhaps we can take a preventative approach by striking an accord between machines and their human counterparts.
Automation Is Human Nature
Human beings evolved because of intelligence and creativity. Since the discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, and the advent of pulley systems, people have moved to pioneer advances in efficiency. Automated processes make life easier. It’s in our nature to continue with these experiments and inventions. When they appease some need, we see them as marvels. When they stop appeasing those needs, we see them as villains.
“Online retailers like Amazon are using A.I. to automate many of the steps that come between placing an order on your smartphone and receiving a package on your doorstep,” Deming wrote. “The impact on American jobs is already enormous.”
“Online retailers use A.I. applications to figure out what customers want and to get it to them quickly, all at a much lower cost than their brick-and-mortar competitors,” he added. “The key innovation is using data to make better predictions.”
It’s true that while e-commerce sales practically doubled over the last five years, U.S. retailers closed nearly 6,000 stores in 2018. Those losses will likely accelerate this year, as analysts predict. But, Deming wisely pointed out, “A.I. will create many new opportunities, including some that we cannot foresee.” An article by Timothy B. Lee for Vox also illustrated how automation is making human labor more valuable than ever:
So at the same time robots destroy manufacturing jobs, the demand for labor-intensive services is soaring. We can see the signs of this all around us. There's the rise of Etsy, an online marketplace whose main selling point is that the products are not mass-produced. There's the craze for restaurants with organic, locally sourced ingredients that often come from smaller, less mechanized farms. There's the exponential rise in the number of small wineries and breweries where a personal touch — and often a tour of the facilities — is a big part of the selling point.
Collaboration Instead of Consternation
”Collaborative robots,” or cobots, are machines designed to work alongside people, assisting them with tasks and freeing them to pursue other core duties. They can be complex, life-sized mechanisms or they can be simple tools like chatbots, which in our industry have garnered favor for alleviating the burden of time-consuming tasks like ranking skills, matching qualifications to profiles, and performing simple conversations for screening. Recruiters can focus on their primary responsibilities and take over when nuanced interactions or assessments are needed.
Despite the tremendous boons we reap from automated technologies, however, many people can’t escape the pervasive fear of being displaced by some nebulous notion of “sentient” machines. The thing is, they’re using these devices every day.
We Didn’t Make Machines Just to Hate Them, Did We?
A Pew Research Center report explored the issue in depth, concluding that “Americans express more worry than enthusiasm about coming developments in automation—from driverless vehicles to a world in which machines perform many jobs currently done by humans.”
Close to 60% of the respondents said they would refuse to ride in driverless cars or receive care from a robot. And nearly 80% were opposed to applying for jobs where algorithms were selecting candidates instead of human recruiters.
“But if being ‘human’ means making thoughtful decisions and having strong interpersonal skills, as survey respondents indicated, how ‘human’ are humans?” asked The Atlantic’s Lolade Fadulu in a related piece. “It turns out that the inclination to exalt human qualities might be misguided -- and that robots might actually be preferable in certain jobs that count on those qualities.”
Let’s consider the aversion to autonomous vehicles. True, driverless vehicles have crashed and killed passengers. There are six known fatalities. But 37,000 deaths resulted from human error. On average, cars driven under traditional human control are currently involved in approximately 1.18 fatalities for every 100,000,000 miles, substantially more than self-driving vehicles. We’re not talking about DUIs, checking the phone, or fiddling with the radio. We’re talking about poor judgment. Despite reductions in deadly traffic accidents caused by distractions or fatigue, federal data indicate that fatalities due to bad decision-making increased.
What about the growing presence of robots in health? Are these machines worse at caring for humans than humans? Hard to tell. In 2012, the American Psychological Association determined that 10% of the nation’s elderly had been abused or neglected by their human caregivers. That’s 4,000,000 seniors. To date, robots have yet to attack their patients, berate them, or withhold food.
Here’s the million-dollar question: if machines are taking their cues from humans, what are they really learning? Critical studies from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics have repeatedly warned that artificial intelligence platforms are displaying growing tendencies toward racist and misogynistic behaviors. The problem isn’t digital. A lack of diversity in tech, where the robots are born, has created an environment that facilitates biased context, which informs the AI.
As Elon Musk quipped of the Sophia robot, “Just feed it ‘The Godfather’ movies as input. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Busting the Myths
Historically, short-term disruptions have usually led to longer-term benefits. The telegraph replaced the Pony Express, but it paved spurred job creation. Operators, land surveyors, builders, electricians, and others were hired to construct the new infrastructure.
We have automated weather systems, but there’s no shortage of meteorologists needed to program the machines, analyze the data, and study the impacts. Consider this career outlook report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
Employment of atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists, is projected to grow 12 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. New types of computer models have vastly improved the accuracy of forecasts and allowed atmospheric scientists to tailor forecasts to specific purposes. This should maintain, and perhaps increase, the need for atmospheric scientists working in private industry as businesses demand more specialized weather information.
A quick glance at any major job board backs up the claim. Postings for meteorologist are pretty popular. Who’s hiring? The military, airlines, electric companies, road crews, farms, educational institutions, research organizations, television studios, radio stations, and more. The National Severe Storms Laboratory has a wealth of information on vocational prospects for folks interested in weather.
The energy market provides another example. The coal industry, despite political talking points, relies heavily on machines to automate processes, according to Robert Godby, an energy economist at the University of Wyoming. And mining companies are cutting jobs.
Renewables, on the other hand, are outpacing traditional power suppliers in job creation. “Jobs in the solar industry grew 12 times as fast as overall job creation in the US economy,” noted a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The country’s 209,000 solar industry jobs in 2015 outnumbered those in oil and gas extraction -- 187,200 -- and coal mining -- 67,929. The renewable sector in Europe alone could produce 6.1 million new jobs by 2050, according to Sustainlabour.
More importantly, gas and oil skills transfer. Sophie Bennett, policy officer for RenewableUK, explained that many of the technical and managerial needs of the low-carbon energy sector mirror those in traditional energy and power industries.
We Already Task Robots with Chores
It often appears that everything is being automated, digitized, or mechanized in some way. People don’t, Pew’s report asserted, trust “technological decision-making.” They complain. They worry. They warn of dire consequences. And many of them engage in this behavior while asking Siri to order them food. Or setting their Gmail to auto-respond to messages from friends. Or withdrawing cash from an ATM. Or having the virtual assistants on their phones schedule appointments for them.
Digital advances, in truth, have ushered in some incredible breakthroughs that promote the welfare and salubrity of humankind. Microchip implants can trigger the release of hormones in the body. Exoskeletons help the disabled walk. Robotic limbs can now interact with the nervous system. Doctors treating autism are using VR to help patients develop social skills, recognize cues, and respond appropriately. Exponential technologies such as desalination systems and 3D printing could end global hunger and a shortage of potable water.
You may not realize it, but 90% of your flight time on a plane is handled by computer. On average, pilots manually control the vessel for three to six minutes. The primary reason is safety. When accidents do occur, 75% are attributed to human error. However, the airlines and the government have no intention of eliminating pilots. If something goes wrong with the machine, a human is there to assume control. And although manufacturers like Boeing are developing automated craft, they have continued to champion the idea of having a trained pilot on the ground who can take over remotely in an emergency.
Humans will never stop finding innovative ways to ease chores, optimize efficiencies, contain costs, and make our lives easier. But we must be smart and humane about the implementations. We need a robust social contract to manage the changing nature of work in the digital age.
Deming summed up the situation well in his article: “Federal labor laws will need to clarify the status of gig workers, providing them with some guarantees to prevent exploitation and giving them the right to bargain collectively. More broadly, as A.I. disrupts the economy, we will need to help people pivot more easily to the jobs of the future. This means flexible benefits, including health care, that are not tied to one employer, and policies that give a measure of economic security to workers who want to be retrained and learn new careers.”
If we want to reap the rewards that machines have to offer, we must never lose sight of our humanity.