Automation Technology: Should You Fear the Robot Apocalypse?

Right up there with zombies and alien invasion, the fear of sentient machines rising up and rebelling against humanity is one of the most consistent tropes in science fiction. The theme is both fear-inducing and interesting, because a robot takeover is starting to sound less and less like fantasy with every new innovation in automation technology, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing.

But getting past the Terminator plot lines, the advancements in these areas bring up some serious questions, including:

  • What does automation mean for the workforce?
  • Which industries does automation affect the most?
  • Is it man versus machine or will the two find ways to work together?

Automation Technology in the Workforce

One of the biggest concerns workers have regarding automation is whether they can expect to lose their jobs to a computer in the near future. After all, computers and robots have proven themselves faster than humans at most tasks — and with a 24/7 workday and no need for salary, benefits, sick time or vacation pay, it’s no wonder automation is appealing to employers. While opinions vary widely, experts who have analyzed this question have arrived at some general conclusions.

“What determines vulnerability to automation is not so much whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar but whether or not it is routine,” The Economist notes. As a result, a highly trained specialist that performs complex (but easily programmable) tasks, such as a radiologist, may be in danger of replacement by a machine.

A 2013 study estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are “at high risk of potential automation,” the source went on to note. This points toward a troubling trend we’re already seeing in the American workforce.

“Middle-skill jobs (such as those in manufacturing) are declining, but both low-skill and high-skill jobs are expanding,” The Economist continues. “In effect, the workforce is splitting into two groups doing nonroutine work: Highly paid, skilled workers (such as architects and senior managers) and low-paid, unskilled workers (such as cleaners and burger-flippers).”

So, in short, automation technology will have a profound effect on the American workforce in the years to come — in fact, it’s already having one.

Which Industries Are Most Affected by Automation?

Jobs primarily routine in nature, whether physical or cognitive, are vulnerable to potential automation. So, the following industries are most likely to be affected:

  • Manufacturing
  • Retail
  • Legal (primarily research and paralegal)
  • Medical (primarily support services, research and analysis)
  • Marketing
  • Banking

But really, just about every industry can potentially be impacted as the technology improves. The industries least likely to be be in danger from automation are those that could be grouped together as “caring” professions — jobs that require a uniquely human touch:

  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Personal trainers
  • Therapists
  • Hairdressers
  • Waiters, chefs and bartenders

The creative power of these interpersonal jobs necessitates a human behind the wheels, and these professionals may even benefit from a partnership from advanced technology.

Does It Have to Be a Battle?

Interestingly, despite this seemingly gloomy forecast regarding the impact of automation, AI and machine learning on the average worker, the experts also agree on another interesting point. David Autor, an economist at MIT, told The Economist that technology actually generates far more jobs than it does away with. That’s because once a task becomes automated, it opens up demand for human workers to do more complex jobs.

This trend has played out over the centuries with weaving machinery, ATMs and everywhere computers have replaced manual operations, from typesetting to filing to communication.

“Computers thus reallocate rather than displace jobs, requiring workers to learn new skills,” The Economist concludes.

So, although automation technology can and will involve changes for the workforce of the near future, it’s unlikely to turn into a job for John Connor. Instead, it’s a job for educators, guidance counselors and parents: Teach and encourage kids to become lifelong learners who are willing and able to adapt to an ever-changing world.

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