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The Fourth Industrial Revolution: leisure for all or one-way ticket to poverty?

First they take over in the factories…

It’s not exactly news that technology is reshaping the employment market. Over the last several decades, robots have slowly been replacing factory workers,  banks have swapped tellers for ATMS and online stores have been shutting down bricks-and-mortar outlets, eradicating the jobs of countless sales clerks, managers and maintenance crews. But now, advances in artificial intelligence and new generations of robots have brought society to the edge of a really major revolution in the workplace — a revolution which will put at least five million people in the world’s most advanced economies out of work by 2020, according to a report (opens in new window) issued last year by The World Economic Forum (WEF).

You say you want a revolution?
Hardest hit will be people in administrative and office jobs, while those in IT, engineering and other “hard” disciplines actually stand to gain. These far reaching (and accelerating) changes in the labor market have been dubbed The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Like all revolutions, this one holds out the promise of a better, more leisurely life for many — and the potential for widespread misery, huge social disruption or even violent conflict.

Brave new labor market
The WEF report paints a relatively rosy picture of the brave new labor market, with the majority of workers simply upgrading and changing their skill sets to stay gainfully employed. However, things may not be quite that simple or pleasant. Whole categories of employment, and especially less skilled employment, may well be on the edge of extinction. Professional drivers, for instance, will be largely eliminated as self-driving vehicles become the norm. Are the legions of unemployed truck and cab drivers likely to retrain as software engineers or robot repair specialists? Or again, will laid-off office workers return to the job market as software developers? Don’t bet on it.

It’s OK, you didn’t mean to put us out of work. (Did you?)

Creeping job loss, lower wages
More insidious is the creeping loss of jobs and downward pressure on wages, as low cost labor becomes more accessible thanks to the Web.  Why hire a high-priced accountant in North America to do your tax return, when the same service is available at a fraction of the cost in places like India? Why pay a writer a handsome hourly wage, when the same outlay can purchase the services of a half-dozen writers in less prosperous countries, plus a recent graduate of a Western journalism school to edit their output? Ditto for legal research, software development and indeed any service job which does not require the service provider’s physical presence.

The word “Robot” is derived the Slavic for “serf.” Food for thought.

Who wins and who loses?
For those on the right side of this revolution, things look rosy. Unreliable human workers are replaced by machines that do the job more efficiently, at a lower cost and without complaint. Result, higher productivity, fewer HR headaches.  In an ideal world, this revolution would also eliminate many of the unpleasant and dangerous jobs humans must do — and free up more time for leisure pursuits.  But it is hard to enjoy leisure time when trying to put food on the table and keep a roof over one’s head. Official” unemployment levels are down significantly from The Great Recession. These statistics, however, do not count the millions of people in developed nations who have simply stopped looking for work — an estimated 95 workers in the U.S. alone. With population continuing to increase, and especially in areas where training in high-tech skills is not readily available, the potential for massive social unrest is very real. Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and to “interesting times!”

Artificial Intelligence — coming our way fast

(NOTE: links open in new windows)

“Open the pod bay door HAL.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave.”

 

It’s funny how new technology, even the most life-altering technology creeps almost imperceptibly into our lives –until suddenly it’s everywhere. Such seems to be the case with Artificial Intelligence (AI).  When 2001, A Space Odyssey, first appeared in theatres, “HAL,” the murderous AI, seemed about as farfetched as flying saucers or time travel — maybe even more so. No longer.

The advent of beings very similar to HAL (although hopefully not as malevolent), seems to be only a matter of time. Already we are seeing self-driving cars, AI-based robots that interact with Alzheimer’s patients and even lawyers (members of one of the most conservative professions) discussing how AI will affect the legal profession.  While estimates of when “true AI” as defined by the Turing Test will actually arrive,  it seems certain that the day is coming. En route, we need to prepare ourselves for the massive re-thinking of virtually all familiar aspects of life that AI is bringing, from its effects on employment opportunities  (already discernible) to more fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness and of “life” itself.

 

 

 

Robotic boy helps treatment of Alzheimer’s patients

Truly, we are living in a science-fiction world. And this is only the start. This robot has crude AI capabilities — imagine what the fourth or fifth generation of “Ludwig” may be like. At the same time, consider that many Ludwigs will take the place of flesh-and-blood people. We already see this with the advent of such widespread technology as the humble ATM.

This tech-driven displacement is going to continue and widen. Where will the displaced men and women go, how will they make a living? Not everyone can be an AI developer or robot repair expert. So? The question should be carefully pondered by those who care about society a decade or two, or three down the road. This proviso automatically excluded most career politicians and corporate leaders — fresh reason for concern.

The 60-cm-high mechanical boy can talk and move to keep patients socially engage.

Ludwig has a mission — to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Ludwig is also a robot.

The 60-cm-high mechanical boy can talk and move to keep patients socially engage.

His real job is to monitor the patient’s speech and cognitive patterns, and report on any declining conditions.

Read more: Robotic boy helps treatment of Alzheimer’s patients | Toronto & GTA | News | Tor

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