When It Comes To Jobs, Automation Can Be a Force For Good


Advances in automation will create an enormous increase in productivity and wealth, and potentially, a world where that wealth is unavailable to the majority of the world’s population. However, properly applied, these same advances could lift a significant percent of the world’s population out of poverty.

This point was recently addressed by Singularity University faculty member, Kathryn Myronuk, at the 2015 Summit Spain in Seville.

Myronuk began by reminding the Seville audience that the fear of massive unemployment due to technological advances isn’t new—it’s been around since the late 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution drastically changed the notion of work altogether. However, compared to the Industrial Revolution, these fears are distinctly different in key ways. 

Today, we see developments that enable machines to do jobs that a decade ago were believed to be exclusive to humans, such as:

  • Driverless cars—Not only will driverless cars be a convenience, they have the potential to save 1.2 million lives each year.
  • Translation—Skype has introduced real-time translation between English and Spanish. This technology will improve and include more languages in the near future.
  • Watson—Having completed the equivalent of medical school, Watson has the capacity to read hundreds of millions of pages of text to find symptoms and provide accurate diagnoses.
  • Laboratory Automation—Deep Learning initially produced machines that could only identify cats and numbers, but now, these machines can identify signs of mitosis and potentially cancerous breast tissue, a task that only oncologists are currently trusted to do.
  • Discovery—Machines now exist that can sort through thousands of documents, essentially replacing one of the most significant and time consuming jobs of a lawyer.

In an effort to identify the types of work that could be replaced by technology, Stuart Elliot analyzed what skills were required for a number of different modes of employment. Based on his parameters of vision and movement, he concluded that 81 percent of employment is susceptible to automation. Another study, by Osborne and Frey at Oxford, examined types of creativity needed for different types of jobs, and he concluded that only a small percentage require talents exclusive to humanity, among them nurses and early childhood educators.

The response to these advances is a divided one. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, for example, argues that we shouldn’t worry because humans will adapt as we always have. On the other hand, Vinod Khosla, who is also a venture capitalist, worries that machines with human-like abilities will threaten the livelihood of people at every level of skill development.

IBM Watson

But, just as ‘human computers’ of the past employed their savvy for calculations to become computer programmers, certain professions will be able to keep pace with the machines; an oncologist freed from the tedium of analysing images of tissues could be more effective in achieving the goal of curing cancer.

Given the opportunity, many workers would rather focus their time and energy on more meaningful work than what they can currently labor away at. If we can develop a way to leverage the benefits of automation and distribute the resulting wealth that comes along it, Myronuk proposes that we’d be able to raise the standard of living for many people across the world. Freed from the necessity to work for their basic needs, people would have the opportunity to use their time in a more meaningful way.

Case in point: a few years ago, UNICEF implemented a study in a remote village in India where all were given a universal living wage regardless of employment. The result was not idleness, but improvements in almost every facet of life. People invested in themselves, their children, and the future. Productivity rose as did overall health. Problems that previously were not addressed became primary focuses.

Forty years ago in the Canadian province of Manitoba, a similar study was conducted with similar results. The only major drops in work came from teenagers and parents of young children, who focused their attention on studies and child rearing, respectively.

As the world changes, so should employment. Already examples exist of people, who don’t require the income of a job, voluntarily working on solutions to world problems.

As Myronuk made clear in her talk, that’s the type of work we really need.