ARE robots coming for your job? That isn’t a premise for an episode of Doctor Who; for some City-watchers, it has become a genuine fear. On Monday, at a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared, George Magnus, formerly of UBS, was one of those arguing that professionals like lawyers and bankers should be afraid, very afraid at the threat to their careers from the relentless advance of machine intelligence and robotic innovation.
There’s no doubt that our creations are getting better at carrying out complex tasks that used to require professional expertise. Look at journalism: this week the Associated Press announced it would be tapping algorithms, not hacks, to write stories about college sports.
Yet doomsayers too often forget that technological advances have always created new and better jobs even as they eliminated old categories of employment. That’s how our career prospects have evolved from subsistence-level farming to today’s cacophony of options.
Consider the arrival of ATMs in the 1970s. Far from being the death knell for traditional bank teller jobs, the hole in the wall’s introduction saw such jobs increase, according to a new article by academic James Bessen. ATMs made banks cheaper to run, which led to more branches being opened. And with rote elements given over to the machines, the new jobs for human tellers became higher value as well. Bessen also notes that between 1982 and 2012 he finds a range of sectors with high computer use show an above average growth in jobs.
The coming machine age will bring challenges and changes. But we must make ourselves ready to adapt as the new opportunities emerge, not frantically protect the old way of doing things.