CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 23 September 2017

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Computer chaos or human dithering at the bottom of job crisis?

Modern technology is indeed having a big impact on human employment patterns. History tells us that technological progress over the past two centuries has changed the composition of employment, moving workers from agriculture to artisan shops, to manufacturing and clerking, and service and management occupations.
 
The two patterns are discernible during this period. When technology substitutes for labour, there is a destructive effect on workers in that field. Those who lose their jobs are required to reallocate their labour supply.
 
Secondly, there is an effect on capital, as more industries move into the space where productivity is relatively high. This causes employment in these industries to expand. Workers, of course, need education and training in order to fill these new employment spots.
 
The question which we are now trying to address is summarised in a study done at Oxford University, which predicts that as computerisation enters the more cognitive domains this will increasingly challenge the belief that new labour opportunities will be created to take up the slack.
 
It is also important to remember that computers do not create themselves. They depend on the competence of a programmer with the ability to write instructions to direct what the machine will do.
 
Historically, computers have been more or less confined to manual and cognitive tasks involving explicit rule based activities. Now, with the increased capacity in computer technology, computerisation is moving to domains which are defined as non-routine.
 
The speed at which this is taking place is phenomenal, because big-data is collecting and organising incomprehensible amounts of information about particular dimensions of non-routine jobs.
 
This whole process is being speeded up by a relentless acceleration in computer technology.  According to Moore’s Law, computing power roughly doubles every 18 to 24 months.
 
Unfortunately, many people in business, politics, Churches or government do not seem to have taken seriously the implications of this extraordinary exponential progress.
 
And the reality is that when the new technologies are fully on board it will be too late to begin thinking about its social, economic and moral consequences.
 
And, of course, this whole process affects all jobs, not just blue-collar ones. For example in the legal world, complex algorithms are taking over tasks which formerly were performed by paralegals.
 
Many law offices have installed algorithms which can scan thousands of legal documents which are then used in preparing a case for the courts. The savings in costs here and in many other professional jobs is significant.
 
Even jobs which are highly labour intensive, such as education, will be affected by these major technological transformations.
 
The same is true in the area of financial services and even medicine, leading to the conclusion that, as Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne put it in their work, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation (2013), “Computers increasingly challenge human labour in a wide range of cognitive tasks.”
 
More sophisticated robots are also whittling away at a wide variety of jobs by performing more and more complex tasks. It is expected that surgical robots will be able to perform more complex operations in the future.
 
The same is true as we will see in automation of motor vehicles. With an increase in the power and number of sensors and the addition of more sophisticated algorithms incorporating three-dimensional road maps, automatic, driverless cars will be safer than those piloted by humans.
 
Another reason why companies will continue to acquire robots is that their cost is falling quite dramatically.
 
The Oxford Study claims that the cost of robots has fallen by 10 per cent annually during the past decades and that further significant savings will be available over the next few years.
 
Even in a country like China, which has a population of 1.3 billion, employers are substituting robots for human labour because of the rising cost in the salary bill.
 
For example, Foxcomm, which employs 1.2 million people in China assembling products like the Apple iPhone, is now investing heavily in robots to reduce its payroll bill.
 
Robot installation grew by 25 per cent per annum in the years between 2005 and 2012. In 2012, Foxcomm announced it would end up with one million robots in its factories.
 
The implications of these trends is, as Frey and Osborn point out, that “as robots’ costs decline and technological capabilities expand, robots can be expected to gradually substitute for labour in a wide range of low-wage service occupations. 
 
These are the areas where significant growth in jobs has taken place in the United States of America during the past decade.”
 
While there are some engineering bottlenecks that could slow down the increased computerisation of work, such as operating in an unstructured environment, many believe that some of these hurdles will be overcome during the next few decades.
 
 
 ● Father Sean McDonagh