The rise of technological unemployment

Technological unemployment depicted by robot

Is technological unemployment on the rise? And if so, is it a problem? Technological advances tend to elicit two very different reactions in people.

On one hand, innovation comes with excitement and the promise of enhanced day-to-day living. A future with autonomous vehicles means hyper-efficient commuting and safer roads where drivers could get a jumpstart on their workday before even reaching the office.

On the other hand, new technology has a history of displacing human labor, causing significant distress for professionals whose careers are built on a skill set that can be (oftentimes) more efficiently performed by robots.

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Both reactions are completely valid, but there is more nuance to the latter discussion than people realize. Yes, technological unemployment is real. However, not all professional human activity is primed for replacement and there are ways for those in at-risk professions to proactively prepare themselves for new roles that machines cannot yet fill.

Technological unemployment explained

Technological unemployment is, put simply, job loss at the hands of innovation.

This isn’t a new concept. Over the course of history, we’ve seen countless examples of human labor gradually becoming replaced by technology.

robots welding in a car factory, another example of technological unemployment

Tractors replaced field workers. Modern elevators outgrew lift operators. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution brought about a large-scale shift in productivity as advances in technology moved many home-based activities into factories with specialized machinery.

In recent years, the conversation around technological unemployment has picked up steam due to the fact that we are witnessing disruptive innovation at an unprecedented rate. Robots, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are becoming essential to many industries.

Just two years ago, SoftBank, a Japanese company, staffed an entire cell phone store in Tokyo with Pepper robots, a humanoid robot capable of engaging with customers and even perceiving emotions. Stories like this are no longer uncommon.

However, it is important to understand that not all industries are equally at-risk for technological unemployment. And even within industries where this shift is already occurring, there is still an important role for human workers to play.  

In other words, technological unemployment is inevitable, but not necessarily universal.

Where does technological unemployment strike hardest?

To date, there have been many analyses to estimate how many jobs could be replaced via technological advancement.

In 2013, two Oxford professors released the findings of a study in which they claim 47% of total U.S. employment is at risk of future computerization.

On a more global scale, a McKinsey report released late last year puts the total number of workers that could be replaced by automation and artificial intelligence in the range of 400 and 800 million.

In general, the occupations at risk are those where human activity is repeatable and predictable. The two more obvious areas where this is true is in the manufacturing and food service industries. Most people realize that robots have been building our cars for decades. Now, some even make coffee. In the food service realm, Atlantic tells of a robot named Sally that can prepare salads for customers behind the counter at a Palo Alto café.

Sally the salad-preparing robot, a prime example of technological unemployment.
Sally, the salad-preparing robot. Photo credit: Chowbotics

Occupations involving a lot of data collection and analyses, such as accounting and mortgage lending, are also expected to undergo a rapid transformation as machine learning and artificial intelligence grow in sophistication.

Who is safe (for now)?

Occupations that are relatively insulated from technological unemployment are those that depend more on creative thinking, people management, and empathetic communication.

Health care and customer service are two fields in particular where people want to interact with others who can respond appropriately to their unique needs. We still need humans that can make decisions under unpredictable and rare circumstances.

In managing people, the right answer is not always the most logical one, making it very difficult for artificially intelligent beings to replace humans that use contextual clues to drive decision-making.

Creative problem-solving in upper-level marketing and business services are also unlikely to face replacement as these occupations depend on the careful deployment of expertise that isn’t necessarily governed by a fixed set of rules.

Looking ahead

Although the job landscape will continue to shift dramatically over the next decade, humanity is not set to become obsolete. Technology does bring about a level of disruption, but companies tend to respond by reallocating resources, creating new roles, or growing.

Even in the manufacturing space, companies like Rethink Robotics are building “cobots” that are designed to work alongside humans to enhance their productivity, rather than replace them.

Fifty years ago, many people believed ATMs spelled doom for the bank telling profession. Instead, both rose in prevalence. ATMs made it possible for banks to operate more cost efficiently, thereby enabling them to open more branches and create more bank telling jobs.

For workers who are currently in occupations that are at risk for replacement, one of the best investments they can make in their future is to start building skill sets around creative problem solving, people management, and empathetic communication. Another alternative would be to begin exploring occupations that are more unpredictable and less repeatable such as plumbing, animal raising, and landscaping. Machines still have a long way to go before they could operate effectively in these capacities.

Although technological unemployment is a reality, it is nothing unfamiliar. However, the speed to which it is happening today should inspire people to think ahead to how they will be impacted.