Are robots coming for your job?


A visitor looks at the humanoid robot "Nao" next to the humanoid robot "Pepper" (R) at the workshop of Aldebaran Robotics company in Issy-Les-Moulineaux near Paris July 2, 2014. A new study by the Pew Research Center asks tech experts about the impact of robots on jobs. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The good news, according to a study released Wednesday, is that a majority of tech experts canvassed by the Pew Research Center Internet Project don't think robots are going to displace too many jobs by 2025.

The bad news is that majority — 52 percent — is ever so slight.

Forty-eight percent of the nearly 1,900 industry experts, Internet analysts and tech enthusiasts queried by the research organization imagine a more dystopian future, one in which robots and "digital agents" have displaced many jobs and where there are "vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order," according to the report.

Yikes.

"There was a group of people who took the economic view — technology has been shifting and changing jobs since the industrial revolution, and there's no reason to think this will change with the new wave of advances," says Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew and a co-author of the report. "On the other hand, we saw people say: Maybe that's true, but this next wave of change will be hitting people in ways it hasn't hit them in the past."

Smith added that experts in this second camp say change will happen particularly quickly, making it hard for people to retrain and adjust, and leading to even greater disparities between the economy's winners and losers.

The new report is part of a Pew series marking the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Rather than asking a random sample of the population, it canvassed 12,000 tech experts, Internet analysts and members of the public who closely follow technology trends about eight different questions. One of the open-ended questions, about the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the future of work, generated nearly 1,900 answers and formed the basis of the report.

Some of the tech experts, many of whom Pew quoted in the report, were rosy about the impact of artificial intelligence. Vint Cerf, the chief Internet evangelist at Google, argued that all these robots would need caretakers. "Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices," the report quotes him as saying. Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker and host of the AOL Series The Future Starts Here, responded that robots would help to take away drudge work, "thus allowing humans to use their intelligence in new ways, freeing us up from menial tasks." And economist Michael Kende told Pew "every wave of automation and computerization has increased productivity without depressing employment, and there is no reason to think the same will not be true this time."

Others see disruption, but nothing so dramatic right away. Jari Arkko, chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force, said “there are only 12 years to 2025" and that "some of these technologies will take a long time to deploy in significant scale."

If that's not exactly heartwarming, others were downright alarming in some of their statements. Jerry Michalski, founder of a think tank on the future of the economy, made a reference to the Harry Potter villain, telling Pew "automation is Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name." Judith Donath, a fellow with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, foresaw a world of chronic unemployment, one where "live, human salespeople, nurses, doctors, actors will be symbols of luxury, the silk of human interaction as opposed to the polyester of simulated human contact."

Her colleague Justin Reich responded that "I'm not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible, but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom." Stowe Boyd, who writes and advises on the future of work, was even more bleak: "The central question of 2025 will be what are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the 'bot-based economy.'" 

While robotics may sound like a problem for a distant generation, many companies are already focused on their impact in the workforce, Garry Mathiason told me in an interview. Mathiason co-chairs the global employment law firm Littler Mendelson's practice group on robotics. The problem, he says, is that they too are "struggling with the same problem demonstrated by the Pew study. They’re getting hit by both sides and aren’t sure which direction to turn." While some clients of his assert that technology is coming fast and they want to outpace it, Mathiason says, others are less concerned and think it will be slower than the predictions.

The irony of that quandary, of course, is that business leaders will play a big role in deciding just how fast and furious the changes come. Smith, the Pew study's co-author, told me that many of the tech experts who weighed in with responses mentioned the huge role for business leaders, political officials and the educational system in pacing and navigating what lies ahead.

"The technology isn't going to drive these changes," Smith says. "It's the choices we make in the political system, in the business system, and as a society." According to him, the prevailing view among the tech experts surveyed was that "we need to be proactive and thoughtful instead of reactive to the change."

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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