MAYDAY CALL FOR LABOUR?
Ruwandi Perera explores how humans can thrive even in the age of robots!
Red flags, banners and endless parades celebrating the joys of employment above all else, May Day reminds us that it is indeed a blessing to be employed. However, with the undeniable emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (a.k.a. ‘the age of algorithms’), employees across the board are pushed to cry out ‘Mayday!’ in fear of losing their jobs – to robots.
Employment has been evolving continuously amid changes in the way we run industries – from mechanisation, mass production and assembly lines, to computers, automation, digitalisation and AI. And employees have evolved too, from being mere workers engaged in mindless repetitive tasks to those who spend quality time strategising, analysing and innovating.
Even the working week and hours have changed – countries such as the Netherlands average a 29 hour working week – and they’re even considering a 21 hour week. Permanent employees are becoming the exception with freelancers and ‘gig workers’ preferred by many employers.
While some may disagree with the notion, workers have come a long way – from having no rights to being able to demand quite a lot – e.g. perks ranging from flexi hours to being offered fully paid gym memberships.
But with the advancement of machines, robots and AI, human workers are facing a question of redundancy.
The good news is that robots and computers are taking over the mundane and repetitive tasks previously assigned to workers. Companies such as Foxconn – Apple’s iPhone manufacturer – are planning to automate 30 percent of their workforce by next year. This change is creating greater space for humans to engage in more meaningful work, and leave the boring and time-consuming tasks to machines, paving the way for reduced working hours.
Unfortunately, the bad news is that with AI and algorithms becoming more profound than ever, machines are increasingly able to replace the cognitive processes that were once upon a time considered strictly human territory. And with advancements such as data harvesting becoming freely available, the scope of AI appears to be endless.
This means that employees may no longer be insecure about coworkers or foreigners stealing their jobs. Instead, they ought to worry about being replaced by machines that can do the same amount of work but with 100 percent accuracy and in a fraction of the time.
So should we stop innovating and developing AI? Or do we stop competing with AI and instead, start to look at jobs, which are essentially human and can’t be automated?
Oxford University researchers Dr. Carl Benedikt Frey and Professor Michael A. Osborne identified three computerisation bottlenecks – perception and manipulation, creative intelligence and social intelligence – as safe zones from automation for jobs.
Careers revolving around human welfare, healthcare and creativity top the list essentially because they cannot be replicated. It’s true that people turn to WebMD when they notice the simplest symptoms of the flu and browse Reddit for relationship advice.
But let’s face it, the human factor in these cases cannot be replaced successfully. Recreational therapists, mental health workers, social workers and even first line supervisors of mechanics are career paths that will be safe in the digital era.
Being afraid of AI and machines will get humans nowhere since there’s no logic in fearing what you created to replace you. Although machines are slowly and successfully replicating human thinking, they lack humanity and emotional intelligence. So instead of fearing AI and letting it work in isolation, it’s necessary for humans to combine their intelligence with those of bots to create a winning combination.
While machines will be able to work endlessly and harvest valuable data, it’ll require humans to understand the data, interpret it and make decisions. Humans must also be more aware of the cultural aspects, human skills and ability to learn, and continuously develop and evolve. In this way, AI will not replicate human intelligence but rather, augment it and help humans realise their full potential.
The future is not black and white since there’s no way to predict how advanced machines will be. But there will be nothing too advanced for humans to handle given that they’re the creators of these machines.
Yes, humans will need additional training, new skills and more agility to be successful in their jobs. But it would be prudent to remember that automation is most effective when it is combined with human decision making.