Are robots stealing your jobs?
This text was written by a person, not a machine. What's so remarkable about that? Perhaps that, in the future, it shouldn't be taken for granted that a flesh and bone editor will write this sort of post. It might, instead, be taken over by a special algorithm. Robots can already write texts, even replacing journalists. Associated Press, the US news agency, uses computer programs to process corporate news into reports. Virtual writers have also been used for some time for weather and sports bulletins. In the not too distant future it's quite likely that social media posts will also be made by computerized colleagues.
High performing algorithms underpinned by major advances in artificial intelligence (AI) will play an ever greater role in shaping our daily lives in the future, both at home and work.
Personal assistants, such as Siri and Google Assistant, listen to our instructions, making our smartphones even smarter. And even companies like Deutsche Telekom are now employing virtual helpers made of bits and bytes in customer service.
TINKA is one such example. The abbreviation stands for "T-Mobile's interactive new communication assistant". It is an avatar that welcomes visitors to T-Mobile Austria's website. TINKA helps with price and product questions and, if asked, can redirect customers to other customer communications channels like the hot line and FAQs. Soon the virtual customer assistant will greet users by name and be able to remember what they last discussed and refer back to this knowledge. And she won't stop there. TINKA will be able to learn, store, and subsequently apply the best recipes for success from chat logs or genuine discussions between consultants and customers. She will even learn to recognize dialogs and to show emotion. It's all still a dream for the future, but Deutsche Telekom experts are already working on the necessary technological platform.
BEHIND ALL OF THIS IS SO-CALLED DEEP LEARNING
That is the idea that robots and machines will be able to teach themselves new skills. This requires the use of artificial neuronal networks that roughly replicate the way the brain works. To do so, they simulate a tightly woven network of individual nerve cells. Just like their real life inspiration, they learn from experience by fine tuning the exact strength of the simulated neuronal connections.
The high water mark of this development was the recent victory of Google's Alpha Go software in the Go board game. In a much-watched duel, a computer swept aside 4:1 Lee Sedol, the South Korean world champion viewed as all but unbeatable. This was major progress in the development of self-learning machines and artificial intelligence because Go, with its many potential moves, was until recently deemed too complex even for smart computers.
The algorithm for the artificial super brain was programmed by AI experts at British company Deepmind. It was bought over by Google in 2013 for 400 million dollars. The market for robots and artificial intelligence is growing fast. Growth rates across the globe are at over eight percent. Already today there is one robot for every 150 employees in the world. "Robots in warehouses and self-driving cars are astounding innovations that will cause revolutions in the next five to ten years", says researcher Andrew McAfee of Boston's MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and co-author of the book "The Second Machine Age". But more than that, intelligent machines are forging ahead in hitherto unimagined areas, even in knowledge-dominated fields that were presumed shielded from automation. "Routine tasks performed by knowledge-task employees are particularly at risk, such as book-keeping", McAfee predicts.
THIS DEVELOPMENT WORRIES MANY EMPLOYEES
These fears for the future are fed by studies that make bleak employment forecasts, like the one by the academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne. In a study that drew much media attention, the two researchers from the University of Oxford calculated that 47% of all jobs in the USA will be taken over by robots or software in the next 10 to 20 years.
But these results are disputed in academia: automating individual tasks does not necessarily lead to whole professions disappearing, argue researchers from ZEW (Center for European Economic Research). Naturally coachmen were made unemployed when transportation by horse and carriage was no longer worthwhile after the introduction of railroads and motor vehicles. On the other hand, new jobs like train drivers and chauffeurs appeared in the transport sector. On a balance scale, since the invention of the steam engine, technological progress has created more jobs than eliminated.
The Institute for Employment Research (IAB) in Nuremberg has calculated that 490,000 industrial jobs will disappear in Germany by 2025, but that 430,000 new ones will be created. Where labor market researchers do agree is that simple tasks are particularly at risk from technological change. That will make continuous professional training all the more important. Anyone currently performing routine tasks should, wherever possible, be trained up for more demanding positions.
Deutsche Telekom Board Member for Human Resources, Christian Illek doesn't agree with blatant pessimism either in the discussion around potential job losses from robots. He believes machines will certainly not replace all of the people working in most industry branches. It's much more likely that there will be a side-by- side arrangement.
Humans will have to learn to get along with smart humanoid robots at work. We can discuss when and to what extent robots will participate in the world of work, but there is definitely no way to keep this development from happening. Robots are going to become our colleagues. However, Robots will always be used to assist people and never the other way around.