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Is Automation Destroying Intellectual Jobs?

Author: Christopher Jackson

A common theme surrounding the state of the labor market following the Great Recession of 2008 is whether or not technological progress has effectively taken away employment opportunities. While the unemployment rate has fallen steadily to just about 5%, many of the jobs lost prior to the financial crisis have not returned. Rather, many of the working- and middle-class individuals being hired now find themselves earning a lower real wage.

Creative Destruction

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described capitalism as constantly evolving as innovation and progress disrupt older technology through a process of creative destruction. He used this term to describe the way in which technological progress improves the lives of many, but only at the expense of a smaller few.

Creative destruction first became an issue of debate during the industrial revolution, when machinery began to improve the manufacturing process, and inventions like the assembly line came to dominate craft and artisan production. While the economy as a whole benefited from such improvements, those craftsman who were displaced saw their jobs destroyed, never to return again. Economic theory predicts that the negative effects will be relatively short-lived; that those displaced workers will have job opportunities created by new fields and industries. For example, one hundred years ago, no one thought about becoming an airline pilot or a software engineer.

Fast forward to today's information age: The internet and increasing computing power has certainly caused creative disruption in a wide range of industries. As information technology continues to progress, the question becomes, will intellectual jobs – those that require a human mind – also become obsolete with artificial intelligence? (For more, see: How Technology Is Replacing Workers.)

Technology Has Already Made Some Jobs Obsolete

While the industrial revolution saw technology displace human workers in manufacturing and production work, the computer age has seen a displacement of service jobs better mediated by a website or mobile app. The internet automated many jobs involving a broker or middle-man matching the seller of a good or service to a willing buyer, and at a great reduction in cost.

Travel agents, stock brokers, bank tellers, tax accountants, language translators, toll booth attendants, phone operators, postal workers, and job recruiters are just a small sample of the kinds of work that have become automated. While this trend has made these services less expensive and more accessible to a wide range of consumers, those previously employed in these fields have had a difficult time finding new work. (See also: 20 Industries Threatened by Tech Disruption.)

The types of jobs that have not been automated thus far have been those that require the intellect, creativity, and the flexibility of the human brain. Some of the most highly paying jobs today are for managers, lawyers, doctors, and financial professionals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that in the next five years, these kinds of jobs will be in particularly high demand.

The BLS predicts that jobs for market research analysts will grow by over 40% through 2020. Financial advisors are expected to grow by 32% and software developers by 30%. Architects, biomedical engineers, and medical scientists are also expected to see job growth at above average rates.

These lines of work all share the fact that they rely on human intelligence and, so far, have not been automated. The march of progress, however, continues unabated and even these jobs may be at risk in the future. (See also: 2015 Tech Trends.)

AI and the Future of Creative Disruption

MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson is co-author of The Second Machine Age, a book that tries to anticipate which jobs will remain once computers, software, and artificial intelligence (AI) take over the jobs now reserved for human beings. He considers what will happen when the art of writing an article, driving a car, translating speech in real time, or diagnosing a medical condition will no longer need a human brain. The pace of technological progress in the digital age is accelerating such that new industries may not be able to soak up displaced workers quickly enough.

Moore's Law states that computational power will double and become cheaper every 18 months. Moore's Law has held up surprisingly well since it was suggested in 1965, and it appears likely to continue to hold up in the future. Unlike the advent of the steam engine or automobile, which took place over many years and created many more new jobs than they took away, developing software to replace intellectual pursuits can happen very quickly and the effects may be permanent. (See also: 5 Top Jobs of the Future.)

Computers and automation now have greater ability to replace human activity than ever before. Computers can be programmed to win at chess against the world's greatest master player, to win at Jeopardy! by processing and quickly analyzing language and nuance, and can predict stock market outcomes by crunching an enormous amount of data in a very short amount of time. While the automation of the past made labor more productive by engaging in repetitive and tedious tasks, the automation of the future will be fluid, adaptable, and intelligent. The rate of societal change to made adjustments to employment trends is no match for Moore's Law, which would predict an increase in computing power of 10 times in just five years.

Those workers with high tech skills, such as advanced computer programming and electrical engineering, will be at a great advantage when this comes to pass. Computers will begin to master intellectual property, organizational capital, and originally generated content and adapt to changes as they occur.

The first human jobs to go in this scenario are middle-skilled, white collar jobs involved in routine data processing tasks such as accountants, legal services, and nursing. Lawyers and doctors will last, but legal aides whose duties include research and data analysis will be quickly overpowered by the search and data crunching ability of software. Automated nursing stations, which dispense the correct dosage of the proper medicine, will not make harmful mistakes such as administering the wrong drug. Furthermore, software will be able to identify and adjust medications based on allergies, potential drug interactions, or brand new results from clinical trials. Sympathetic or emotional simulations run with artificial intelligence and natural language processing may have a better bedside manner than some human doctors. Such systems could be used in place of a psychologist or as aides for the elderly.

Driverless cars that combine GPS technology with that of mapping, real-time sensors, distributed networking, and a voice-activated interface may come to dominate the roads, eliminating all sorts of jobs that rely on a skilled human driver. Driverless trucks and heavy machinery may also become ubiquitous as means of transporting goods and repairing roads. Not only that, but advanced software may begin undertaking the more intellectual work of designing and engineering new automobiles, optimizing them for performance and efficiency. (See also: Self-Driving Cars Could Change The Auto Industry.)

The Bottom Line

As technology becomes smarter with the advent of AI, networking, and software development, many jobs that have remained human-only may begin to disappear. Because of the rapid pace of progress, this time might be different in the sense that those displaced workers may not have the opportunity to find employment in the new industries created by such change. Manual labor and many service jobs have already been dominated by automation. In the future, jobs requiring intelligence and adaptation may also go the way of computers. Perhaps the only jobs that will ultimately remain are those requiring pure human creativity. That, for the moment, remains out of the realm of automation.

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