Automation: The Fourth Industrial Revolution Is Just Around the Corner

Photo/Alex Knight

Photo/Alex Knight

In his farewell address, former president of the United States, Barack Obama, declared his concerns about the status of the middle class and the country’s increased inequality. Within that context, he mentioned that the next wave of economic disturbances will not come from abroad, but will be the result of the merciless advancement of automation. By that, he means that new technological advancements will soon make a number of middle class jobs obsolete. Obama’s statement is in harmony with the discourse of many experts in economic and technological matters, some of whom think that we are approaching the fourth industrial revolution. Like the ones that came before, this industrial revolution will most likely bring enormous changes to the world.

Uncertain Times Are Ahead

It is safe to say that we are at a certain turning point, where robots are becoming cheap and big steps have been made towards the evolution of artificial intelligence. More capable robots and smarter software make it more and more possible for technology to solve complicated problems that could once only be solved by a human work force. At the same time, there are increasing opportunities for companies to use robots and software for jobs previously performed by humans. In this way, companies can increase their production, lower the cost of wages and also increase their profits. This does not only apply to traditional labour jobs like before, but now also applies to a number of service jobs and knowledge-based jobs. It is safe to presume that these great technological advancements will change many of the jobs with which we are now familiar.

 The Revolution Has Begun

There exist many example that can prove that these changes are already happening. During the last few years, self-driving automobiles at a development stage have become more noticeable. and it has been predicted that within a few years, it will no longer be required to have a human driver behind the wheel. Uber is testing driverless taxis right now, and driverless trucks are being tested in many places.

Recently, the internet-shopping giant Amazon introduced a new type of a grocery store in Seattle which has almost no employees. In this modern store, customers can fill their bags with products and then walk outside without opening their wallets. With the aid of cameras and artificial intelligence, the store can sense what products the customers have taken and will then charge their cards automatically. Amazon plans to open two thousand of these stores in the United States over the next ten years.

The Taiwanese production giant Foxconn, who is also one of the world’s largest provider of jobs, produces, among other things, electrical appliances for Apple, Dell and Sony. Last year, the company started replacing a small portion of its workforce in China with robots. For a long time, it was not worth it for Foxconn to invest in robots because of the low cost of labour in China. It is now thought that more production companies in the area will follow Foxconn’s lead.

Specialised Jobs Will Also Change

Some law firms have already started using an artificial intelligence software that can process a lot of data to find information and evidence that could be used in court cases. This work was mostly done by paralegals before.

Some hospitals have started trying software that can analyse tomographs and diseases. Research has provided clues that Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, can diagnose the correct type of lung cancer in patients in 90% of cases, compared to 50% correctly diagnosed by doctors. Additionally, the Associated Press, the world’s largest news agency, has started using an artificial intelligence software that can automatically write news articles on stock markets and sport games.

Many Are Concerned

The worst predictions are that these great advancements in technology will lead to a massive rise in unemployed individuals. An evaluation report made by Citibank and Oxford University predicts that 77% of all jobs in China and 57% of jobs in the OECD countries will face the risk of disappearing with the arrival of new technology. A report made by the White House from the beginning of the year also predicts that 83% of American jobs, with a salary  under $20 per hour, are at risk.

Physicist Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, have both declared their concerns that this evolution will lead to increased inequality in the world. Bill Gates has even recommended taxing work done by robots, in order to spread around the profits gained by changing out the human work force for a robotic one. A widespread dialogue has started about an unconditional basic support as a response to changed customs in the workforce. Both of these ideas are controversial.

Not Everyone Agrees

Jóhann Malmquist, a professor in computer science at the University of Iceland, has kept an eye on this evolution for a long time and he does not think that there is reason to be particularly worried about this development. In that context, he points to the fact that the agricultural workforce is, in many places, just a fraction of the size it once was and that technological advancements in the fishing industry and health services has led to an increased creation of value and a higher quality of life in Iceland. Jóhann believes that, in the light of history, the evolution will continue and that there will be other jobs to replace the ones that will be lost.

A lot of people agree with this point of view and point out that a similar fear spread throughout society when yarn twisting machines and steam engines arrived on the scene. Similarly, many were concerned that the arrival of private computers would lead to a decrease in jobs. That did not happen. With the arrival of yarn twisting machines, weavers became a lot more productive and fabric became cheaper. That led to an increase in sales and the number of jobs in the industry multiplied. Optimists point out that history proves that technological advancements create on the whole more jobs than they destroy. That statement is supported, among other things, by Deloitte’s report that researched the development of jobs in England over a 140-year period.

It is possible that history will repeat itself and that automation will weaken some professions, strengthen others and give birth to new ones. However, pessimists believe that the job market has never before had to adjust to so many changes over such a short period of time. It is impossible to predict the future, but it is safe to assume that some of the imminent changes will prove difficult for a lot of people.

Journalist: Eiður Þór Árnason
Translation: Sólrún Harpa Sveinbjörnsdóttir

Article first published in 4th issue, vol 92. of Stúdentablaðið.