Robots probably won't take our jobs—for nowby Daniel Susskind / March 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Can humans benefit from robots in the workplace? This question is commonly asked, but we often make two mistakes in answering it.
The first mistake is that, in everyday conversation about the future, we tend to talk about the different “jobs” that people do. We speak about “doctors” and “lawyers,” “teachers” and “accountants.” And we ask whether, one day in the future, they might wake up to find a robot in their place.
But talking about the future in terms of “jobs” is misleading. It encourages us to think of the work that people do as monolithic, indivisible lumps of endeavour. Yet it is clear that when you look under the bonnet of any particular job, people perform lots of different tasks and activities.
This is why statements like “doctors are safe but accountants are in trouble” are unhelpful. It is why claims like “X per cent of lawyers are at risk of automation” are misleading. Robots don’t entirely displace people from their jobs; instead, they change the sorts of tasks and activities that people might do in any job.
Take, for instance, a nurse. The sort of thing that a nurse might have done 30 years ago is very different from what a nurse might do today. Then, it might have been bedpans and bedside conversation. Today, nurses can prescribe certain types of medication and perform minor procedures. The same job, “nurse,” but made up of very different “tasks.”
The second mistake is that, in moments of optimism, we tend to talk about these machines as if they directly benefit workers, as if they necessarily make certain types of people more valuable and more important. We say, for instance, that a robot “complements” or “augments” a particular person, perhaps with a certain set of skills, in carrying out the tasks and activities in his or her job.
But this way of thinking gets things the wrong way around. Robots do not directly benefit workers; instead, robots make certain tasks and activities more valuable and important, and this might be beneficial for workers—but…