Guest column: (Robot) help wanted

Within the next ten years, physical labor jobs will be all but obsolete as technology takes more and more American jobs, writes James Patten.

As one who often watched Super Bowl broadcasts just for the commercials (I still chuckle remembering the Budweiser frog spots), I have a new favorite television ad.

My current pick does not promote a product but a company, actually an idea, the idea of thought and innovation. Through stages of her life, a young girl develops inventions to lessen the amount of time she must spend on chores. Eventually, as a GE employee, she programs robots to perform the painstaking task of inspecting components of huge turbines.

This ad speaks to me on a couple of levels. First, the girl invents to spare herself the discomfort and drudgery of menial tasks, taking out garbage in the rain, cleaning her fish bowl, trudging behind a push mower, etc. Second, is the irony, which the ad writers fail to recognize, of the enterprising young programmer making advances toward unemployment, one day replaced by iterations of the very robots she once controlled.

Recently, researchers from Yale and Oxford Universities surveyed 352 artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning (ML) experts across the globe. The consensus was that by 2060 AI would be able to do all human tasks. Think about that for a moment. By the time, this year’s high school seniors are preparing for retirement the majority of human workers are in danger of being, or will have been, replaced by intelligent machine systems.

The first workers being displaced, probably within the next decade, will be those whose jobs require physical labor: warehousing, order picking, truck drivers, mail carriers and sorters, meter readers, farmers, etc. (Frey and Osborne, 2013; Garlick and Citi Research, 2016).

You find this doubtful? In October 2016, a driverless truck operated by an Uber subsidiary made a delivery of 2,000 cases of beer, driving from the Budweiser brewery in Fort Collins, Colo. to Colorado Springs. Between 2002-2012, U.S. Postal Service (USPS) employment dropped 230,000 jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates by 2022, USPS will eliminate at least another 260,000 positions.

Next to lose their jobs will be service workers. Mobile order and pay apps, table-top tablet systems and kitchen automation systems are already affecting the casual dining industry. Natural Language Processing (think Siri, Alexa, IBM’s Watson, etc.) and Human-Machine Interface systems will transform call centers, tech-support, report writing, publishing, and journalism among other vocations. According to Peter Chalif, (Citi Research, 2016) the Associated Press is producing “thousands of financial stories” using automated writing. As algorithms improve, the amount of machine produced internal reports of businesses, banks, auditors, and regulators will increase exponentially.

The aforementioned IBM’s Watson can now sift through millions of journal articles and case studies to assist in medical diagnosis. Local hospitals currently advertise robotic surgical devices. It is estimated by the mid-2050’s machines will be making the diagnosis and performing surgeries autonomously.

While the current emphasis on increasing primary and secondary STEM education is a step in the right direction, it may be “too little, too late.” A more holistic approach to education is required. Additional attention on critical thinking, persuasion, creativity, and team building are necessary to prepare our youth for a future of tumult and social dysfunction.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, AI and ML researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee note, “… it’s not access to the new technologies themselves, or the best technologists, that separates winners from losers.” Instead, future employment will require creative “blue-sky thinkers” to inspire, motivate and persuade.

Next: Is Idaho’s education system up to the challenge of a jobless future?


Patten, a lifelong learner who holds multiple degrees, is a member of the Eastern Idaho Jazz Society, the City Club of Idaho Falls, AARP and the ACLU of Idaho.


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