To say that artificial intelligence will take away jobs of the future is an understatement, and redundant to boot. The broader term, technology, has been doing this for centuries already, and it is merely evolving into a more streamlined avatar called AI.

Why is Artificial Intelligence Considered to be a Threat to the Future of Work?

In its most basic form of process automation, artificial intelligence has already wiped out a number of different jobs. And it’s an ongoing cycle: Assembly lines made skilled workers obsolete, and they in turn were made obsolete by machines that did the job of human assembly line workers. That same trend can be observed in every single industry in the world.

But Why?

To put it simply, humans have a habit of wanting things to be done better, faster and for less money. In other words, the continual need for better quality, more speed and greater efficiency has been responsible for this trend of jobs becoming obsolete.

To understand why most of the world’s workforce today considers AI to be a not-too-distant threat to their livelihood, we must first understand the present capabilities of artificial intelligence and the path we took to get here.

The first and probably most disruptive technological development in recent times is undeniably the ability to mass-produce consumer products. Before there was automation of any kind, it was primarily skilled workers producing small quantities of goods. Books, for example, were painstakingly hand-written before the printing press was invented.

In the case of Johannes Gutenberg, it was not new technology per se, but rather an employment of existing technologies in a new configuration along with a few new inventions. His development of a movable type-based printing press system is probably his greatest contribution to the world of printed literature.

But what it did to Europe’s primarily woodblock printing industry was practically destroy it. Woodblock printing was in its heyday during the 1460s but eventually petered out by the end of the century in favor of printing presses that used Gutenberg’s hand moulds and movable type.

This is probably one of the better-known instances of technology making jobs obsolete, but it was by no means the only one.

Textile manufacturing machines during the Industrial Revolution stand out as a watershed development in automation leading to job loss. In Britain, for example, the automation of textile production gave rise to tremendous unrest:

“The rapid industrialisation of the English economy cost many craft workers their jobs. The movement started first with lace and hosiery workers near Nottingham and spread to other areas of the textile industry owing to early industrialisation. Many weavers also found themselves suddenly unemployed since they could no longer compete with machines which only required relatively limited (and unskilled) labour to produce more cloth than a single weaver.

As a result, weavers and other unemployed workers began to destroy factories and machines, which came to be known as the Luddite movement. Nearly every sector of industry was hit with similar phenomena – angry and out-of-work craftsmen and skilled workers attacking the things that put them out of a job.

But human progress is a juggernaut, crushing anyone that stands in its way, and the Industrial Revolution eventually became a global movement that touched nearly every area of manufacturing.

This is where the collective human fear of artificial intelligence taking over our jobs seems to stem from. As humans, we have yet to shed the fears of being replaced by machines. The only difference is that they’re no longer known by that name. Most of us now call them robots.

It was, in fact, a combination of automated processes and early ‘limited memory’ machines that are the cause of today’s fear of job loss at the hands of robots.

Present-day Robots, Process Automation and Job Loss

Merriam-Webster defines robots as follows:

“A machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently (as by walking or rolling on wheels) and performing complex actions (such as grasping and moving objects)”

To say the least, that’s oversimplifying an extremely complex area of technological development. That aside, the definition is as accurate as possible considering the breadth and depth of robotic capabilities seen in action today. Machines that look like living things that can do human-like tasks.

But robots aren’t the only things threatening today’s jobs. Process automation is another area that deserves a closer look. Essentially, it involves removing unnecessary and often manual steps in a process to make it cheaper and faster, and often better.

RPA, or Robotic Process Automation, is a sort of hybrid of the two, employing physical robots or computer programs to enhance the efficiency and reduce the cost of workflows and processes that were previously executed by a human workforce.

Put another way, RPA leverages machines and software programs to create digital workflows that are more accurate and more consistent than if done by people, not to mention cheaper when deployed at scale.

And this is one of the reasons for job loss in the enterprise scenario. Although RPA is often promoted as a way to “free up employees so they can spend more time on higher value work,” some see it as a way to reduce manpower but still maintain the same level of output – or even higher in many cases.

That scenario is exacerbated when machine learning and artificial intelligence are further leveraged, as is the case with Cognitive RPA or Cognitive Automation.

“Unlike other types of AI, such as machine learning, or deep learning, cognitive automation solutions imitate the way humans think. This means using technologies such as natural language processing, image processing, pattern recognition, and—most importantly—contextual analyses to make more intuitive leaps, perceptions, and judgments.”

On the positive side, RPA and Cognitive Automation forces employees into higher-value jobs. Unfortunately, those who can’t keep up get left out. This is typically true of the ‘most likely to be affected’ demographics. Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article on the subject:

“Recent research by the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis (ISEA) at the University of Redlands breaks down the risks of job automation within the next 20 years by educational attainment, race/ethnicity, gender, and age group. Job automation risk falls with education: workers without a high school degree face an almost six times higher risk than those with a doctorate. Hispanics are 25 percent more likely than Whites to lose their jobs to automation. For African Americans, this number is 13 percent, while Asians are 11 percent less likely as compared to Whites.

“Workers aged 16-19 have a 66 percent higher chance of job automation than workers in the 35-44 age range. Since more women than men work in professions that are highly automatable (above a 95 percent chance of automation in the next 20 years), twice as many women than men are likely to lose a job that is highly automatable.”

That further complicates the situation, because specific demographics are now under the guillotine.

Graph showing probability of job automation by race, ethnicity and gender.
Graph showing the probability of job automation by race, ethnicity and gender; probability of automation above 0.95

Job Loss and the Future of Work in an AI Environment

So, while it’s amply clear that the risk of job loss it higher for certain demographic groups, it is equally implicit that automation and robots will be responsible for the bulk of job losses over the next twenty years. The lower the contextual content of a job role, the greater the chances that it will be automated in the near future.

In other words, people who do mundane and repetitive tasks will be far more likely to lose their jobs to a robot or an automated process than someone whose work involves contextual input. And the not-so-surprising thing is that it doesn’t matter how much you make. What matters is whether or not your daily tasks can be executed more efficiently by a robot or an automated business process.

For example, an auditor who checks financial transactions is more likely to lose his or her job than, say, a plumber, who must first make a full assessment of the situation before work can even begin.

As artificial intelligence research and development gives rise to more intelligent Type III and Type IV machines, more complex jobs will be replaced.

That doesn’t necessarily mean job loss on a massive scale. The Industrial Revolution benefited mankind by elevating income levels and creating more jobs, and many believe that AI will do the same for us in the future. A sound argument was made to this effect by Berenberg analyst Kallum Pickering:

“Producers will only automate if doing so is profitable. For profit to occur, producers need a market to sell to in the first place. Keeping this in mind helps to highlight the critical flaw of the argument: if robots replaced all workers, thereby creating mass unemployment, to whom would the producers sell? Because demand is infinite whereas supply is scarce, the displaced workers always have the opportunity to find fresh employment to produce something that satisfies demand elsewhere.”

That’s logical, because if automation leads to massive job losses across multiple industry segments, it will defeat the very objective of automation – to make more money. This human need to continually have more and make more will help control the relentless deployment of automation for its own sake.

That being said, there’s no doubt that job losses will happen. On the other hand, new jobs will also be created that require new skills, such as managing or overseeing automated systems. The human element will never leave in most cases. In other words, the overall structure and make-up of the workforce will inevitably change, but the workforce will remain and keep growing.

That’s the silver lining to what is often seen as a dark and heavy cloud bringing torrential rains of the unemployment kind. If man is anything, he is resilient. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator, and it’s been that way since well before recorded history. Man will not sit by and allow machines to take over the world. Some might try using it to their advantage, but in the end, the collective will to stay relevant will drive the direction of future AI development.

“The share of women in the labor force grew from 30 percent in 1950 to almost 47 percent in 2000, and the number of working women is projected to reach 92 million by 2050—on the basis of an annual
growth rate of 0.7 percent. That same year, women’s share of the workforce is expected to be nearly 48 percent.”

That’s from a Bureau of Labor Statistics report titled “Labor Force Change, 1950–2050”, it projects that development over the next thirty years or so. The report also says that there will be changes in the age and ethnic structure of America’s workforce over the next three decades.

Artificial Intelligence will be a significant contributor to these changes in labor force profile not only in the United States, but all over the world.

Our children and our children’s children will continue to have jobs. To us, they’ll be “new-fangled” jobs involving “thingamajigs” and “whatchamacallits”, but the future of work is safe. The profile of the labor force might change in the future. Who knows, maybe women will become the primary breadwinners in the next 50 to 100 years, and it could be our daughters’ daughters’ daughters bringing home the bacon.

It’s certainly not impossible or even improbable. The future of work will belong to more intricate jobs that require emotional and social finesse over physical effort, and women have always been far advanced in that respect when compared to men.

“Social awareness is how well you understand the emotions and experience of other people. This requires the ability to tune in to body language and other unspoken signals, since people don’t usually come out and say what’s going on with them. This is an area where women outscore men by a fairly large margin (statistically speaking). This is also a skill that women are socialized to practice and possess from childhood in ways that men aren’t. Right or wrong, women are expected to take care of other people (and are rewarded for doing so). This gives them an upper hand when it comes to social awareness. Men, to their detriment, aren’t rewarded for social awareness in the same way that women are, and this carries over into adulthood.”

We know that the highest form of artificial intelligence is self-awareness, and we are possibly several decades away from developing machines with such awareness. It is not highly unlikely, therefore, that a woman’s great sense of social awareness – a socially tuned form of self-awareness – will make her a better fit for the job of the future.

No matter how the future of work plays out over the coming years and decades, one thing is certain: there will be enough jobs for anyone willing to evolve and keep up with the times. Perhaps the only thing that could lead to massive job loss because of AI and automation is a massive ‘giving up’ by a large portion of the workforce, and that will never happen.

As long as we remain human, that sense of self-preservation will ensure that there’s work to be done and a day’s pay to be had in exchange.