9th August 2018
In these times all kinds of predictions abound on the work that machines will take over the next few years to the detriment of humans. The numbers put forward are based on hypothetical conjectures with wide margins of error, but afterwards the results are disseminated as hard truths. For many, the outlook is dire. The vast majority of the work we do today is augured to be axed in a few decades. As a productive system is only feasible if there is consumption, such prophecies imagine envision new forms of wealth redistribution or income generation, such as the so-called “robot tax”, or state-administered basic income. After all, machines might take away our jobs, but they should not detract from the ability to buy whatever they produce.
Among the most rigorous studies are the ones by McKinsey & Company like “Where Machines could replace humans – and where they can’t (yet)” and others later. Already in 2016, these studies demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again with the same technologies. Together with aggregate data, this study offers a classification of the most automatable jobs and those in which it is not so easy to replace a human being. Of the automatable ones, physical tasks in predictable environments and data collection and processing stand out. Jobs where we are less replaceable are the ones to do with managing other people, and harnessing experience for decision making, planning and creative tasks.
The latest data published by this McKinsey report provides information on 54 countries. In Spain, for example, they forecast the automation of 8.7 million jobs over the next decades. The moment for this massive replacement of human labour by automated production units is suggested to take place in 2055, but with a wide of 20-year margin, so this scenario may happen in 2035 or in 2075.
I suggest the definition of our strategies to be based on the following:
- The conundrum is not how far machines can go, but how far humans do go. As in any market, frustration over a competitor’s achievements is a sterile sentiment. It is much more practical to cultivate the advantages further, especially those that are sustainable and difficult to copy. Paradoxically, in times where robotization is gaining ground, many insist on continuing to develop automation capabilities. At the other extreme, we find polymath professional profiles: multidisciplinary knowledge, with a solid humanistic base as well as holistic and integrative ways of thinking. The hyper-specialization race against machines is already lost from the onset.
- It is necessary to act in advance. It is true that the timeframes for an activity to become automated are vague. This reality should not lead us to merely observe events. When the technology becomes available for performing this task more profitably, it is too late to react. We aspire to be the protagonists of our lives, not the mere actors who perform to a script written by others. The new world of work will be largely what we want it to be, not just what the technology available at that time dictates.
- Welcome technology to the world of work! It will facilitate our life, free us from many tedious tasks and allow us to focus on characteristically human activities. So long we do not stubbornly try to continue working as in the past. Unusual times call for unusual professionals.