My prediction for 2013 concerns the end of work for most of us — which may not necessarily be a good thing.
Back in 1995, social activist and economist Jeremy Rifkin wrote a controversial book called The End of Work in which he argued that both blue and white collar jobs across the globe were increasingly becoming the private preserve of information technology intensive systems. Rifkin claimed that “software surrogates” were leading to a steady and permanent decline in the number and types of jobs that humans could do better. The inevitable question society soon had to face, he argued, was what actions were urgently needed to deal with the end of work as we understood it. Depending on the decisions society took, a near worker-less global society might be a “safe haven,” a nirvana of personal advancement and social transformation, or an “abyss,” one pocketed by poverty and crime for all but a small, wealthy elite.
The book was generally dismissed at the time as an overly pessimistic or even Luddite vision of the future. Critics argued that every technological revolution has naturally experienced a displacement of currently-employed workers for a period of time, but that the introduction of the new technologies were more net job creator than a job destroyer. For instance, in 1900, 38% of theU.S.labor force was engaged in farming; by 1990 that had dropped to 2.6%, as technology radically decreased the need for farmers while simultaneously increasing food production. In 1900, one farmer could produce enough food to feed 10 people; by 1990 that same farmer could feed 129 (today it is about 153 people). In addition, farm mechanization increased the labor supply available to work in factories, like those needed to support the nascent automobile industry, a child of transportation-related technological improvements. While the introduction of information technology inU. S.manufacturing in turn helped spur a loss of jobs in that industry sector, many lost jobs there were replaced by a strong growth in jobs in the burgeoning service sector economy.
Critics also argued that Rifkin was overestimating how easily humans could be replaced by technology.
For the past fifteen years, Rifkin’s critics have looked comfortably correct in their predictions. In addition, the Internet, which was just beginning to take hold in 1995 and its impact on helping create new jobs categories that didn’t even exist in 1995 wasn’t even considered by Rikfin. However, there is a growing disquiet about another source of technological unemployment that may be qualitatively and quantitatively different than those of the past.
The ongoing economic slowdown over the past five years has led businesses to shed workers or outsource their work overseas, as well as to invest even more in information technology to maintain their productivity and profit. Some economists estimate that around 2.5 million U. S. jobs have permanently vanished as a result.
Other economists are now talking about the great “hollowing out” of middle-wage jobs. According to economic estimates, from 21% to as much as 42% of all current jobs in theU. S. are at risk of being outsourced over the next few decades, with the proliferation of and improvement in ever inexpensive information technology acting as a catalyst.
Another source of disquiet is the ever increasing global demand for jobs: world population growth alone will require the creation of 600 million new jobs in the next decade above the existing job base.
One area that caused Rifkin to be concerned about future employment was increasing the rise of robots, and their capability to eliminate massive number of jobs. His worry may not be so farfetched. The past year have seen some remarkable advances in robotics (you can read about – as well as watch – the latest in robotics at IEEE Spectrum magazine’s Automaton blog) as well as some interesting announcements in replacing workers with robots.
For instance, last year the Taiwanese manufacturer of the Apple iPhone, Foxconn, announced plans to replace many of its 1.2 million workers with 1 million robots within 3 years which will be used in the beginning for routine work such as spraying, welding and assembling. This month, Foxconn announced that it had already installed 10,000 robots and it plans to have 300,000 in place by the end of 2013. A motivation for installing the robots, Foxconn stated, is to cut rising labor expenses and improve efficiency. Foxconn’s investment in robots will be around $15 – $20 billion.
Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it had bought robot maker Kiva for $775 million in cash. The robots Kiva makes stock shelves in warehouses. The expectation is that Amazon will use them to reduce its current 15,000 warehouse staff – or at the very least, eliminate the need for Amazon to hire more workers by making its current staff much more productive.
California followed Nevada’s lead and approved the use self-driving cars, which will be legal in 2015, with several other states likely to follow suit in 2013. Most major automotive manufacturers will likely offer self-driving vehicles by 2020, and it should surprise no one that as a means to control traffic congestion, several major cities will require self-driving cars by 2030 if you want to park downtown. Volvo has gone further, and argues that with self-drive cars, all accidents can be eliminated within a decade. It has even staked its future on self-drive cars, and I would not be surprised that the promise of eliminating crashes will be used by governments as a reason to mandate self-drive cars for everyone by 2050 if not before.
Then there is iRobot, a leader consumer and military robots, and InTouch Health, a leader in acute care remote presence telemedicine, who jointly announced this summer their Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant (RP-VITA) aimed at assisting ICU and emergency room healthcare providers. RP-VITA which stands 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 175 pound is a remote-controlled telepresence robot that is equipped with cameras, microphones, a video screen, built in stethoscope, navigation system, and Wi-Fi enabled communication system. The purpose is to quickly get patients medical help from specialists who may be geographically distant, e.g., in another hospital in another state. By 2013 RP-VITA should have government approval to navigate hospitals autonomously. It is expected that over hundreds of hospitals will have RP-VITAs roaming their halls in the next few years.
Then more in the realm of the artificial intelligence side of robotics, in October IBM announced that its Jeopardy-winning cognitive system Watson would be a “student” at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. The purpose is to develop Watson into a specialized doctor’s assistant, one who is up on all the latest research findings. Medical knowledge is said to have a half-life of about 4 years now, which makes much of what doctors learned in medical school obsolete. In March, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and IBM came to agreement to use Watson to eventually assist doctors in their diagnoses.
While IBM insists that Watson is not about replacing doctors, no one is betting against this happening in the future. Vinod Khosla, one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems, claims that with cognitive systems like Watson accessing the information from hundreds of millions of electronic health records (part of the information technology revolution now occurring in U.S. healthcare) that will becoming available over the next decade, the number of doctors needed will decrease significantly.
In almost every industry, from agriculture to high-end medicine, robotics is now starting to radically change the employment dynamics. The robotics community insists that robots will not replace human workers, but instead will act as their assistants, although this statement always seems qualified by “in the near term.” When pushed about the “long term,” they are less confident.
Maybe even a greater impact on the future shape of employment will be in the area of 3-D printing. In the past five years, proliferation of 3-D printers has exploded as their costs have rapidly dropped. Universities have been working hard on developing ways to print a wide range of 3-D objects, from blood vessels to buildings. Last year, EADS announced that it was researching ways to make parts for its aircraft using 3-D printing techniques, leading to the thought of someday printing out most of an airplane this way. This year saw Shapeways, a Netherlands-based online printing service company, open up its “Factory of the Future” inNew York City. The company prints designs created by customers in a variety of materials; its new factory will allow up to 5 million products to be printed a year. If the technological and cost issues associated with making 3-D printing a wide-spread business practice are overcome, 3-D printing has the potential for eliminating whole industry supply chains.
The rapid growth in robotics and 3-D printing – not to mention other IT technology – will have a negative impact on employment in a number of wide-ranging industry sectors simultaneously. The questions will be whether their introduction will create new industry sectors that contain more jobs than are destroyed, how long it will be before new jobs appear, what will be the qualifications of those needed to fill them, and what will those new jobs will pay?
So expect the technology unemployment argument to start becoming intense in 2013, especially if the economy doesn’t improve. Also expect this argument to spill over into education, both in terms of how to best educate young people in what subjects to cope with a radically changing and shrinking job market, and how to provide skills to those workers displaced by the new technology.
I don’t expect the end of work to happen anytime soon, but I do expect that a lot of jobs that look secure today will not look so nearly secure by 2023 — and sooner.
[Editor's Note: This post is part of the annual "Cutter Predicts ..." series.]