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Beyond Disruption

Can a robot do your job better than you can?

by Kate Pavao

August 2015

When you think about robot workers, you might picture the Jetsons’ maid, Rosie, or a big-eyed garbage collector like WALL-E.

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But Martin Ford, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015), has a different definition of the machines that are dramatically disrupting workforces around the globe.

“It means basically any kind of automation, and in particular it includes software,” he explains. “A lot of the automation we’re talking about is white-collar automation, which is not mechanical robots at all.”

Here, he talks to Profit about new breakthroughs in automation, what jobs are at risk, and the discussions we all need to start having right now.

On the robot takeover: Robots are already in factories and warehouses. There’s a company in San Francisco working on a fast-food automation machine that can crank out nearly 400 hamburgers an hour. But I think the bigger story is how smart software—and in particular machine learning—is putting white-collar jobs at risk, from writing to e-discovery.

If you look at corporate finance departments, the head count for jobs such as financial planners, accountants, and accounts payable and receivable has collapsed by about 40 percent since 2004 for companies earning the same revenue, and it’s all because smart software can automate what those people are doing.

The bigger story is how smart software—and in particular machine learning—is putting white-collar jobs at risk, from writing to e-discovery.”

On breakthroughs: When Microsoft developers launched Kinect for video-game consumers, they perhaps inadvertently created a really affordable technology that people working in robotics immediately realized would give robots 3-D vision.

More recently, researchers at UC Berkeley programmed a robot with deep learning algorithms—the technology driving machine learning and pattern recognition—so it could teach itself tasks that require a great deal of dexterity, like unscrewing the cap on a bottle.

On cloud robotics: With the cloud, you can offload much of the intelligence of a robot into these massive computing services. You already see this with intelligent personal assistants, such as Siri or Google Now. You will be able to build individual robots that are cheaper because they don’t need to have so much memory and processing power, and you can upgrade all the robots at once in a central location.

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Percentage of jobs that are at high risk for automation in the next two decades (Source: 2013 Oxford Martin School study)


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On caution: I am not anti-technology. I believe that technology is primarily the force that makes us better off. But I think we need to recognize how technology can disrupt income and employment, and the impact that will have on consumer spending in the economy.

On robot-proof jobs: You can never say never, but in general, workers should focus on things that involve genuine creativity and that are in no way repetitive and formulaic.

Be flexible. No one is going to have a career that lasts 30 years anymore. But it’s not going to be enough to say to someone, “This is what you have to do as an individual to stay ahead.” We need to recognize that automation—and job loss—is going to be something that we are going to have to deal with as a society.

Photography by Shutterstock