When it comes to the future and technology, people often fall into two camps. There are those who are optimists, believing in a Jetsons-like utopian future. Others are more pessimistic, seeing a grim future similar to George Orwell’s 1984.
After perusing the Bank of America and Merrill Lynch's report on the impacts of automation, I’m still figuring out which camp they fit into.
Their report doesn’t cover judgment day or terminators, but is instead more concerned with the next chapter of the industrial revolution - machine intelligence and robotics.
Although the report talks up positives, such as robots taking care of the elderly, it doesn’t skimp on the downsides. These include dire predictions of a huge number of jobs lost to machines. The report forecasts that up to 35% of all workers in the UK and 47% of those in the US could lose their jobs to machines.
In New Zealand, local analysis on the same issue also came to equally dire conclusions. In the report "Future Inc" commissioned by Chartered accountants and the NZEIR, 885,000 jobs are forecast to be at risk from automation in NZ in the next 20 years. According to the report, low skilled jobs will be the first to be automated, and job losses are likely to be most severe in the regions.
The concerns cited in both reports stem from a combination of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence and robotics. This blend, according to Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, will not only take jobs, but could also change the balance of wealth.
Robotics and AI are advancing rapidly. For example, the Ashley Madison site used over 70,000 chat-bots which tricked male site users into thinking they were chatting to female users rather than just a bunch of computer code.
Robots are also advancing – sometimes in leaps and bounds. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has engineered a robot cheetah that can avoid and jump over obstacles, while the Henn-na Hotel in Japan has launched a hotel with Android staff.
So-called automation-proof occupations (such as journalism) aren’t immune either. The AP news agency is already using an algorithm to generate sports and business stories. The socio-economic implications are potentially huge. Unskilled jobs are already disappearing and many jobs that were seen as safe are looking less and less secure.
Also of concern is the predicted wealth gap issue. Should the Bank of America and Merrill Lynch’s scenario unfold, the wealth chasm could increase, with a small number of people owning the AI/robots while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet.
That said, technology-driven change isn’t anything new. The printing press and steam engine transformed the pre industrial world. Nowadays, brands like Alibaba, Uber and AirBnB are challenging retailers, as well as transport and accommodation services.
In their recent report “The four global forces breaking all the trends”, consulting firm Mckinsey predicted that the extent and rate of disruption will only increase.
While some political parties are working on policies to ensure that societies can adapt, developing such future-focused policies is often easier said than done. AI and robotics are evolving so rapidly that trying to develop policies involves constantly relearning a fast-moving (and wildly unpredictable) target.
The last word however, goes to the optimists, who argue that technological innovation could also transform our economy. Technology has already shrunk the tyranny of distance that had long disadvantaged residents of New Zealand.
The tech sector is now one of the fastest growing parts of our economy. Wages within the tech sector are often higher compared to those in other industries. Either way, anticipating, planning and adapting to change will play key in New Zealanders not only surviving, but prospering.