Humans need not apply… are robots really taking our jobs?

Elon Musk has a fairly dystopian view of the future job market. In a recent interview with CNBC he predicted that robots will take your job and the government will have to pay your wages. The workforce of the future will be comprised of intelligent machines and as the humble human is inevitably superseded by technology our lifestyles will have to be maintained by the state. Science fiction? Or science fact?

Well Musk is pretty adamant:

“There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation. Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen”

So, in my mind, that bold statement kind of begs two questions. Firstly, which jobs are really under threat and if Musk is correct in his assertion then how would governments handle a minimum state wage system to plug the monetary gap?

Is your job under threat?

In Lisbon last week the annual Web Summit (one of the largest tech conferences in the World) took place and they conducted a poll of 224 venture capitalists who are collectively responsible for $100 billion of investment capital. In that survey, 53% of them said that Artificial Intelligence would usurp millions of jobs. Hmm. The survey also said that 93% of them believed that governments were completely unprepared for this seismic shift. Double hmm.

So which jobs are most threatened? A recent McKinsey report suggests that any jobs which require performing predictable physical activities, the likelihood of them being automated is a whopping 78%. Their findings homed in more specifically on certain jobs which had a high probability of being automated:

  • 59% of manufacturing activities could be affected by automation. For example circa 90% of the activities of welders, cutters, solderers and brazers could be done by robots
  • 73% of work in food service and accommodations industries
  • 53% of any retail work
  • 47% of a salesperson’s job
  • 86% of bookkeepers and auditing clerks work could be taken on by intelligent machines

And the top 4 jobs which are likely to be eradicated?

  1. At 99%, Accountants top the list of the most likely to lose their jobs to smart machines

2. The days of umpires & referees are apparently numbered with a 98.3% chance of being automated

3. Waiters have a 93.7% chance of being replaced by their robot counterparts

4. Fourth most likely to be displaced by computer variants? Legal assistants and paralegals have a 94.5% chance of being displaced

In a Forbes article on the same subject they referred to studies from Boston Consulting Group and Oxford University which predict that careers including insurance, architects, journalists, marketing, finance, human resources and even advertising (gulp) will also. But surely creative agencies wouldn’t be affected? Well seemingly copywriters are potentially being undermined by new AI software such as Persado which is touted as a “cognitive content platform”. Basically it writes copy which they claim guarantees better a response than human created content. The stark headline in the Wall Street Journal says it all: “Persado Raises $21 Million to Replace Human Copywriters With Computers”. Co-founder and CEO Alex Vratskides claims

“we have never lost to a human. I’m a mathematician, and I can guarantee you, it’s like a computer losing to a human on a chess game, even worse than that…It incorporates a lot of randomness to get there, it’s like getting a needle in a haystack. We built the haystack. The human brain does not work this way”

So is anyone safe from the mechanical march of these ‘Job Terminators’? Well if you work in education, specialised areas of healthcare (such as dentistry) and so-called ‘knowledge work’ (such as managerial roles) then you are marginally more protected as these careers offer the lowest potential for automation. Oh and I suppose the people who design and build the robots. Unless they develop a robot to design and build those robots of course.

So if we all lose our jobs to robots, how can we earn a living?

It’s a pretty bleak future for us all then right? In the words of the mighty Def Leppard, Armageddon It (yeah, I’m a getting it). In my own game of ‘media’ I’m guessing that the nifty algorithms that power programmatic buying may well make me and my kind ultimately obsolete. Scary but arguably true. And is the same true in your industry? If so, then who the hell is going to prop up the economy? If we don’t have gainful employment then how can we earn the money to buy the products that these clever robots can produce much more efficiently than us mere mortals?

The notion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), where each individual gets a regular pay check from the government, is not exactly novel with its roots going back 50 years. The Swiss actually considered introducing a basic income (the equivalent of about $2500 USD a month) earlier this year. Although voters decided against the initiative, it did at least generate a much more extensive debate on the subject around the globe.

Outgoing US President Barack Obama recently addressed the possibility of a universal basic income via an interview with the Director of MIT’s Media Lab and the chief editor of Wired. He certainly didn’t rule out the idea:

“Whether a universal income is the right model — is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people? — that’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years”

And beyond the aforementioned Mr Musk, there are a slew of entrepreneurs and academics who endorse the notion of a universal basic income. For example co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes is a long time supporter of a UBI. Ray Kurzweil, the co-founder of Singularity University, believes people who are not forced to work for a monthly pay check will pursue their passions instead:

“You’ll do something that you enjoy. That you have a passion for. Why don’t we just call that work?”

And on the same day that Donald Trump was voted as President-elect, Andrew Ng (co-founder of Coursera and chief scientist at Baidu) took to Twitter to say:

“More than ever, we need basic income to limit everyone’s downside, and better education to give everyone an upside”

So what do you think? Do you believe that droids are destined to dominate our occupations or do you think that the doomsday scenario is being vastly overstated? And what about the notion of the Universal Basic Income? Is it a viable alternative to the way in which we are currently compensated or would it be a financial and social disaster?

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Steve Blakeman is Managing Director - Global Accounts for OMD based in London / Paris. He was named by LinkedIn as a Top 10 Writer for Marketing & Social for 2015 (Top Voices) and also 'Agency Publisher of the Year' for EMEA. Please follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter