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Will Robots Take All Our Jobs? Not Anytime Soon

By Jody Robbins


Automation is certainly shaping and molding today’s workforce, but not in all the ways you might expect.

“Humanity’s issues with automation have always been there and it’s not just the automation we have today with robots: when tractors came out there were less farmers needed, so they went in the city and started working in factories,” DeVry University professor Mike Reitzel told The Fuse. “Historically, when productivity goes up, it takes less people to do a given job. You hear about the jobs that are destroyed, but there are more jobs created because people just take that for granted.

“You only hear about the ones that go away. That’s been true for thousands of years and when you’re the person losing your job, it’s a problem.”

Reitzel is a professor at DeVry and the Keller School of Management based in Austin, Texas. He’s an electrical engineer by training and moved into high-level administration, including a stint as a vice president at Rockwell International. He’s also helped found and launch companies, which helps him come at this issue from multiple perspectives.

The Economics of Automation: Evolve or Perish

As technology evolves, more tasks are completed by machines, and fewer by people. These days, this has a name: technological unemployment.

Inevitably, certain sectors of the workforce will face greater unemployment – what ever happened to town criers after the printing press came into widespread use? Or to gas lamp lighters post-electricity?

“Right now, artificial intelligence (AI) and computers are advancing so much, you don’t need an accountant to do your taxes, for example,” says Jeevan D’Souza, faculty chair of DeVry’s Northeast Group and a teacher on DeVry’s Manhattan campus. In the future, many jobs will be handled by computers, software and robots, but we’re always going to need people to fix the robots and program them.

“At least in the near future, computer engineers and programmers are going to be needed. We may need less bankers and accountants, but we’ll still need engineers to build all these systems,” D’Souza told The Fuse. “I think it could take 50-60 years to get to the point where the robot is programmed to fix itself. The whole concept of machine programming, where the program learns and fixes itself as it goes without intervention, is very complex, but is being used a lot these days.”

Another interesting example of high-tech automation: the da Vinci® Surgical System, powered by robotic technology. It allows surgeons to operate remotely and translates the surgeon’s hand movements into small, precise movements of tiny instruments inside the body. Still, for now, the days of robots taking over day-to-day tasks are largely left to science fiction movies.

“The phase of automation we’re in is more about programs on smart phones and other devices, but I think in 20-25 years it will be more on the physical side—robots,” D’Souza says. “I think we will eventually have robots who can talk and physically move things, but it’s still down the line.”

For instance, brainwave technology is a field of study whereby thoughts are translated directly into commands for devices. It’s already happening in medical technology and the gaming world, though still in the early stages.

AUTOMATION SHIFTING HOW WE THINK

There’s also been a major shift toward automation in the field of higher education when it comes to both teaching and learning. “Education has gone online and sometimes you don’t even need an instructor, the software itself takes care of everything,” D’Souza says. “In the past, a huge part of having a college degree was your assumed knowledge base, you knew a lot about your field. Now, all of that knowledge is available on Google.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it necessitates changes in the educational experience.

“I’m not saying, ‘Don’t gain knowledge.’ What I’m saying is, you can be on a beach in Hawaii and every bit of knowledge you need is available on your smart phone,” D’Souza says, noting that success is more about creativity, teamwork, communication skills, being effective, efficient, prompt and reliable. “You can pick up knowledge anywhere, so what’s important is to become a problem solver and a critical thinker. These are things computers still can’t necessarily do, and are at the core of what makes humans more valuable than computers.”

In case automation still seems like the enemy to you, here’s Reitzel’s vision of an automation-less future …

“If we don’t have this creative self-destruction, renewal and growth, we wouldn’t have the wealth of tools and technology we have now,” he says. “Economically, everything supplants something else. We let companies that are no longer relevant go away, replaced by pertinent new ones for which workers will need new, more valuable skills.”

AUTOMATION IN EDUCATION: TIME TO TEACH, CONNECT

Given the explosion of online learning in recent decades, automation is affecting many facets of higher education: online courses, learning management systems that automatically grade exams (teachers must still tackle essay questions though!), apps that handle class scheduling for both teachers and students, that detect plagiarism and that generate on-the-spot activity reports concerning how a student is doing, or how engaging a professor is being with their students.

A more visceral example of the positive effects of automation in online learning is the virtually connected classroom (VCC). D’Souza notes this has been a very effective high-tech learning tool and has made the educational process more convenient and enriching for students and teachers alike.

“Basically, it’s a room full of huge screens and cameras that automatically start up and shut off when it’s time for class,” D’Souza says. “The cameras have sensors and move around depending on the professor’s location.

“I like teaching with it and it also helps the students because, usually, if less than seven students register for a class, we cancel it, but now we can merge students from other campuses with VCCs, so students can still take the course instead of waiting months to sign up for it again,” says D’Souza, part of whose job as faculty chair is class scheduling. He notes that he’s seen a dramatic drop in the number of canceled classes since automation technology was employed to help with scheduling.

Still, the effects of automation on the workforce seem to call for humans to be more, well, human. “The world … is moving faster thanks to the adoption of new technologies and a larger, more educated population,” Reitzel says. “Hundreds of years ago, if your father was a bricklayer, you became a bricklayer. These days, you can’t count on a particular profession lasting a lifetime, much less multiple lifetimes.

“That accelerating momentum forces businesses and people to change. Those willing and able to do so will be great; those who don’t will be left behind. They will feel treated unfairly because they have an expectation they’re going to get a nice union job for the rest of their lives.”

So, a simple formula to make sure you’re on the right side of automation: be creative, be a leader, never stop learning and be human.

Now Hiring: Humans Needed

To look forward, D’Souza first looks back.

“The first computer program written 60 years ago was programming intelligence, and that we have mastered. That is why intelligent and repetitive tasks are going to be automated,” he says. “Being good at math doesn’t mean as much anymore. The computer is faster, and now, with AI programming, has become so advanced there is no need for a human to tell the computer what to do.

“The only things so far that machines don’t have is consciousness, emotion and creativity. It’s easy to program intelligence and decision-making. Intuition, emotion and creativity are big. Coming up with a novel idea is very hard to program, but, once you have the idea, it’s very easy to program. Once machines gain those [abilities], there really is no need for human beings anymore,” says D’Souza, going on to caveat that statement. “As a computer engineer and programmer, I don’t see how that is possible no matter how advanced computers get.”

In storing and retrieving data very quickly, computers have surpassed humans. As far as intelligent machines, we have come a long way in the last 20 years and we’re going to see lots more of it over the next 20. All that is happening and that’s not science fiction. But, you can give a computer 15 ideas and say pick one, and it won’t come up with a new idea.

Humanity, that’s your cue!