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Robot-Proofing the Jobs of the Future

Borg www.dirkloop.com

A couple of articles in The Economist and The Atlantic this week have me thinking about peak jobs again. Especially since The Economist article pulls in the thoughts of anthropologist David Graeber, as my last blog post on the topic did. As a reminder, the concept of peak jobs refers to a point at which technology’s destruction of jobs (through automation or innovation) meets or exceeds its capacity to create jobs (through demand for technological goods and services).  As I’ve written about previously, anxiety related to peak jobs has amplified in recent years as the type of jobs being automated has shifted from the most menial roles to jobs that we previously viewed as safe. This, combined with a broad hollowing out of middle management jobs in many sectors (jobs we still tend to agree are safe from automation), has left a larger group of us watching our backs for the encroaching robot workforce.

According to the articles in The Atlantic and The Economist, one sector of jobs that remain safe are many roles in healthcare (the articles mention healthcare and mental health social workers, occupational and recreational therapists, oral surgeons, athletic trainers, audiologists and prothetists). This is reasonably positive given that in general, demographic trends in the developed world point to increases in healthcare employment due to higher demand. Longer life spans (resulting in increases in age related disabilities), and declining birth rates (leading to less potential family caregivers), mean that many jobs in healthcare are growing. Essentially, more of us will be taking care of the sick members of our species while robots take their jobs.

“The good news Mr. Smith is that you are fully recovered from your accident and ready to go back to being an insurance underwriter. The bad news is that the Insuro-matic 4000 is more accurate than you and doesn’t need to take vacation, so…good luck out there!”

Perhaps I’m looking too hard for a bright spot in all of this, but I found myself recalling what I consider to be an intellectual highlight of 2013. In October, I attended TEDxToronto, and while I found many of the speakers to be compelling, the person who completely blew my mind was Dr. Ivar Mendez. A neurosurgeon with a special interest in robotics (because we all need a hobby; am I right?), Dr. Mendez explained, and then demonstrated, the way in which he uses remote-presence robots to provide assistance during neurosurgery in communities that are geographically inaccessible. Using a laptop on stage, Dr. Mendez connected in real time to robots in his California office, and in hospitals in rural Saskatchewan and Labrador, each time  steering his robot through hallways to engage in interactions with staff on site. A web-cam on his laptop was used to display an image of his face on what would be considered the robots’ head area. I highly recommend that you check out his talk here.

The point of his demonstration was that rural and isolated communities, such as an Andean mountain village he described, need not live without the expertise of a healthcare professional. The astonishing impact that this could have on infant mortality alone in the developing world is hard to imagine. Long-distance telementoring of on-the-ground health workers would make this not just a stop-gap measure, but an investment in local healthcare resources whose knowledge would grow through their involvement in such a partnership. Strap one of these robot interfaces onto Google’s eerie Big Dog all-terrain robot and you’ve basically got a go-anywhere medical advisor.

Could the availability of such technology lead to increased demand for doctors, nurses, and a wide variety of healthcare practitioners in rural, isolated, or under-developed areas of the world? I think the answer could be yes. Of course, if that’s true, it’s only one small example of many in which technology will create jobs. We cannot forget that there exists many others that will tell the opposite story.

I am no economist or futurist, but I remain somewhat skeptical about whether we have reached, or will reach, peak jobs. As a species we’ve proven to be less than perfect at predicting the ways in which technology would impact our lives, whether for better or worse. Innovation and disruption occur in ways that we didn’t expect. But the rising clamor on this topic is unnerving, and history reminds us that colossal shifts in employment created by technological advances in the past have not been without casualties. This, combined with the clearly demonstrable rise in contingent and part-time work at the expense of full-time roles, is enough for me to take this topic very seriously. The Economist points to education as the only hope in helping our populations avoid technological unemployment. This is troubling, given the rate at which education has been able to adapt to the shifting needs of society and industry in the past. And what will we do for workers who lack the desire or aptitude to pursue careers safe from robots, which tend to be more complex, less routinized, and more reliant upon cognitive abilities? It’s enough to conjure images of a bleak future for humanity. My future kids better start saving for med school early.

Image Credit: Dirk Loop via Flickr Creative Commons

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great presentation by Dr. Mendez. Don’t know about “bedside manner” offered by robots, but then again it may actually be an improvement, in some cases.

    Certainly in remote communities a virtual doctor is revolutionary, as long as there are humans continuing to pilot them. Call me old school, but I’m just imagining yearly physical exams……eek!

    Thanks for sharing.

    January 27, 2014
    • Doug! Thanks for reading and for commenting, and I hope you are well. Seems safe to bet that we’ll all need to learn to get along with robots a bit better in the not-too-distant future. Increased automation will almost certainly mean increased human/machine interface. And since I can’t use Loblaws self checkout with energetically swearing when it freezes and tells me to ‘wait for an attendant’, I share your feelings about a robot doctor…

      January 29, 2014
      • Ha! I share your check out experience. I thought I was just cranky…
        No doubt about our future and living with robots.

        I follow the latest news from Ray Kurzeweil for all the rosy stuff. Link below.
        “The Singularity is Near”…….

        http://www.kurzweilai.net/ray-kurzweil-bio

        Cheers.

        January 30, 2014

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