OPINION: How soon are robots going to steal our jobs?
JOHANNESBURG - It is difficult to predict the extent of job replacements by Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is a topic high on the agenda of many employees throughout the world.
In South Africa, where the unemployment rate is treacherously high, those who are fortunate enough to have jobs now face the potential challenge from machines and AI.
As technologies develop, it is important to separate the risks each poses.
Robotics and automation have been eroding jobs in various sectors for decades.
However, they tend to create new fields of employment as their adoption and abundance increases.
This has been a gradual process, though as our ability to create more and more capable machines improves, there is no question that the speed at which they replace the human requirement will accelerate.
Robotics and automation are also responsible for significant reductions in the cost in the manufacturing, farming, mining and other sectors.
As a result, they have reduced the costs of many products that were previously far too expensive for most - and have also resulted in a wave of new jobs to support, develop and maintain these machines.
Robotics and automation are, however, only a replacement for our human physical capabilities.
A new risk to jobs comes from AI and Machine Learning, which threatens to replace human mental capability.
Studies are producing radical potential for the replacement of human knowledge workers, because AI begins to mimic and surpass human learning and intelligence.
As one of the primary qualities that differentiate humans from machines, intelligence is quickly becoming a reality for machines and systems.
Any scenario that allows a computer to gain a human-level of intelligence simply means that we will begin to replace ourselves in fields across the spectrum of work available.
Theoretically, there is no sector that would not be significantly impacted by the successful creation of true AI.
Companies designing AI argue that the benefits of robots and technology versus human counterparts are numerous and speak for themselves: machines do not require remuneration, medical aid or retirement considerations; they do not require leave, lunch breaks, or any breaks for that matter.
They can work at full production, 24/7/365.
These companies also argue that robots are drama free.
Human error is removed, they can’t and won’t complain about workload, would not require disciplinary action, or suffer debilitating episodes of low morale.
Most appealing though, is that robots cannot be injured or killed in the line of work, and can be used in situations far too dangerous for human risk!
Indeed, from a business perspective, it makes good sense for robots to, at the very least, carry out all the menial, repetitive, dangerous and laborious tasks previously undertaken by people.
Although many industries are experiencing a steady increase in the technological displacement of the human workforce, people underestimate just how rapidly this phenomenon is set to upend the job market over the next few decades.
A 2017 report predicted that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation, and in the US alone over 50percent of all current jobs would no longer exist for humans.
The study, produced by the McKinsey Global Institute, argues that advances in AI and robotics will have a major effect on everyday working lives, comparable to the shift away from agricultural societies during the Industrial Revolution.
There is no doubt the rest of the world will follow in leapfrog fashion.
Mechanisation in the mining industry has already replaced millions of mining jobs, and this change is unlikely to abate until such time as machines are doing 100percent of the work - particularly in hazardous environments.
The sad reality is that there will be fewer and fewer jobs available in large mining operations as robots and machines continue to take over.
Then, autonomous vehicles, trains and aircraft are set to disrupt every sphere of the global transport and logistics industry.
Although there are still hurdles that must be overcome before autonomous transport is rolled out en masse, make no mistake, it is expanding and will become the norm far sooner than we think.
Combat drones have also proven themselves to be a huge asset in aerial warfare.
It is highly likely that these unmanned drones will supersede their manned counterparts, removing additional military personnel from the coalface of conflict.
Just how popular all these AI innovations will become is anyone’s guess, but there is no question significant change is coming to all industries across the globe.
In a country beleaguered by ongoing labour unrest and the need for employment growth, the South African government has made clear its willingness to protect jobs.
Looking ahead, a delicate balance between embracing progress and protecting workers and jobs will have to be achieved.
Brian Timperley is the managing director and co-founder of Turrito Networks and managing director of Dial a Nerd.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
- BUSINESS REPORT