The Challenges of the Automation Revolution
By Samantha Wickramasinghe
“The most important question in 21st-century economics may well be: What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?”
-Yuval Noah Harari.
Even before the advent of the internet and smartphones, there was a general notion among people that machines and other new forms of technology could replace human beings. As new technologies emerged from time to time, human beings had to adapt and change their lifestyles accordingly. During the industrial revolution, traditional transportation methods such as bullock carts and rafts were replaced by automobiles and bridges. Instead of using scythes to cut their harvest from their paddy fields, farmers began using tractors and heavy machinery in their farms
Such new technologies also opened up opportunities for people and new jobs. Instead of driving bullock carts, people started driving motorcars. The harvests became plenty with the aid of the heavy machinery and new supermarkets were opened to sell the goods. Today, more than a century after the industrial revolution, and several other historic leaps such as the information revolution and the internet, humanity is on another verge of technological advancement. This time, it will not be a steel train or a washing machine that will take jobs away.
It is not even human-looking robots or some evil supercomputers taking the reins from humans. The challenge comes from the automation revolution powered by ‘highly-intelligent, non-conscious algorithms.’ If it sounds too complicated, think about Facebook or any other social media sites. Whatever you see on your newsfeed, is decided by an algorithm. These algorithms personalise your newsfeed according to your preferences. So instead of a chronological, order of events, you get a much more, personalised, relevant newsfeed.
Never in the history of humanity, had such algorithms come so close to human beings than the current times. For example, if you are applying for a bank loan nowadays, an algorithm can be designed to check all of your credentials and tell you instantly whether you could obtain a loan or not. There will be no banker sitting on the other end telling you that you can’t obtain a loan. Similarly, when you plan to go out with your friends to mountain climbing, your medical apps might show you that you have high blood pressure on a particular day.
The automation revolution is already taking place as you are reading this article and we have to prepare for it whether we like it or not. There is a danger that many of the traditional jobs could be replaced and cause a lot of trouble and chaos. Nevertheless, technology could be used for positive, human advancement and we must observe what the future trends are and shape our skills accordingly.
How will automation affect the future job market?
The automation revolution is taking place rapidly and what we learn today might be irrelevant tomorrow. In the past, we have seen how this affected our economy. For example, in Sri Lanka, Arts graduates are often considered as difficult people to employ. Recently, there was an incident where President Gotabaya Rajapaksa publicly asked a student about the use of studying political science if, serious about doing a job. However, with automation- driven economies, the real challenge will not be the inability of employing arts graduates. Ethics education and education in humanities could be much more valuable than doing degrees in data science and data security as many do nowadays.
Unlike humans, machines cannot understand ethics and philosophy. Therefore, knowledge about ethics and philosophy could be much more useful in the future. What needs to happen now is that whatever the job that people are eying for, they will need to have a combination of skills.
People should also be able to work in multiple disciplines without sticking to a single discipline. One of the problems in the current job market is that many professions are specialised in certain categories. For example, in the medical profession, one doctor specialises in lung cancer and the other doctor specializes in heart diseases, but these doctors do not learn about mental health. In other professions such as law, lawyers learn about the constitutions and legal codes, but they do not learn about computer science. In the society that we live in today, having one skill is not enough. As a nation, if we are serious about the future employability of our young people, we must provide them opportunities to diversify their skills without framing them to a particular discipline.