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How Thinking Machines Can Change Our Future

Posted on December 2, 2015

With many of the “predictions” laid forth in futuristic films like Back to the Future and Minority Report coming true, it’s easy to feel like we are at a peak or plateau of the technological revolution in our society. However, while smartphones, social media, streaming music and video, and a slew of other inventions have changed our lives drastically over the past decade, the truth is that change is only going to continue as technology evolves further. The only question is, which big innovation will come next?

The Pros and Cons of Automation

According to a recent article in The Guardian, the “robot revolution” might just be the next big step for technology. The piece, written by economics journalist Heather Stewart, looked specifically at how robotics and automation could soon make it much easier for businesses to reduce their operational costs and increase their profit margins. The drawback? Those cut costs would come in the form of lost jobs.

Indeed, according to an Oxford study cited in the Guardian piece, the current wave of automation and robotics has the potential to displace 35% of workers in the United Kingdom and nearly half of all workers in the United States. Those effects will likely be felt over the course of the next two decades.

Stewart’s article is written mostly from a place of worry, not just that the robot revolution will eliminate jobs, but that those lost jobs will only lead to greater inequality in terms of class, income, and opportunity. She has a point. The main source behind the article, a 300-page report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch that was “revealed exclusively to the Guardian,” notes that many of the jobs at risk for being replaced by machines are the ones that are accessible to low-skilled workers. These positions include jobs in the fast food and manufacturing industries. With that said, though, jobs requiring significant education and skill, including doctors, are also at risk for job replacement.

The good news is that automation and “thinking machines” could vastly improve productivity and revenue for different businesses and industries. The robot revolution could also help take human error out of the equation in different fields, definitely reducing waste and perhaps even preventing workplace accidents that result in death or injury.

The World without Work

Undoubtedly, questions about income inequality need to be answered before the automation revolution goes much further. As the moment, unfortunately, arguments over income inequality could actually be driving the implementation of automation in some industries. For instance, in the United States, if fast food workers get the $15 an hour minimum wage they are currently fighting for, their employers will probably seek to replace those positions with robots in order to save money and keep prices low for customers.

Still, even with the income inequality issue considered, it’s fascinating to envision what the world might look like as robots continue to fill more jobs. In 2012, Wired claimed that, by the end of the century, 70% of today’s occupations would likely have been replaced by automation. In all likelihood, entirely new jobs and careers will emerge. Humans will find new ways to spend their time and contribute to society once robots are doing all of the more manual and menial work. What those jobs will look like, though, and how the idea of work-life balance will evolve with them, is a mystery that only the future can tell. Who knows: someday, there might even be a world without work.


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