The average manual labourer of the 21st century can anticipate the prospect of being replaced by a machine because of the physical limitation of the human body. A machine does not need food, water, a pension or wage increases to match inflation. Some desk jobs are also being swept out the door by computer programs, but experts say that within our lifetimes some of the most intellectually intense occupations are in danger of becoming the domain of robots.
The Industrial Revolution presented a similar upheaval. Farm workers were displaced all over the world by tractors and other mass-farming equipment and people began to move into cities looking for work. Thankfully, many of them were absorbed into the emerging factories and mass production lines in the city, among other new jobs.
Today, the story is similar. Doctors, bankers and accountants face the possibility of being rendered obsolete. While the Industrial Revolution was similar to mechanisation, this age of human replacement is known as “digitisation”, where your more capable counterpart is likely to be a program or robot that can perform mentally strenuous tasks.
Worldwide spending on robots is expected to reach $67 billion by 2025, compared to just $10 billion in 2010 according to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a firm which has compiled several extensive reports on the potential for robots and computer programs to replace human jobs. Their argument is that robots are quickly becoming cheaper and at the same time more precise and are able to take on complex jobs due to rapidly increasing investment in the industry. At some point in the near future, a robot will be better at a certain job than a human, even though it might be more expensive. Soon after that, the same robot will become cheaper than the human and the incentive to get rid of the human entirely will be difficult to ignore.
This can already be seen in cases where human error is a large factor. Google’s driverless cars are a good example of this. Humans are, as Google puts it, terrible at driving. Without responding to distractions, limited vision, exhaustion, phones and passengers, the program that drives the car fares far better than any human in terms of safety. The technology has become so successful so quickly that governments have not had time to catch up with laws regulating the use of these cars, which is why they are not yet on the roads.
Even the most abstract, creative occupations may be encoded into software. Educational Youtube personality CGP Grey describes the various efforts which have proved this to be true. Even painters and musicians are not safe from the robot revolution. He explains that “creativity may feel like magic, but it isn’t. The brain is a complicated machine, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to simulate it.” The name Emily Howell may seem like the name of any other musician (you will see her name on her album, From Darkness, Light), but Howell is actually a music generating program designed by programmer David Cope in the 90s. Professional music critics cannot tell the difference between her classical music and that of human musicians.
One advantage for the human is that robots can do jobs that are exceedingly dangerous, BCG argues. Prospecting unstable mine tunnels or fixing machines in high-radiation areas are jobs that no human wants to do. They can also do boring, repetitive tasks which take a human’s time away from more intellectually stimulating work.
Digitisation is already underway and experts all over the world agree that the labour market will soon become completely different.
Illustration: Emmanuel Makhado