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For many of us, it still seems like the stuff of science fiction, but the day and age of robots is well upon us, according to NIU‘s David Gunkel.
Over the next few decades, Gunkel says, robots and machines will revolutionize the workplace, displace their human counterparts in areas many of us would never expect and even force universities to rethink their educational missions.
In the carousel above, the NIU Distinguished Teaching Professor of communication identifies and provides commentary on five jobs that will likely be replaced by automation or automatons in the not-to-distant future.
“Usually when we talk about automation, the image it conjures is that of the assembly-line robot replacing human labor on the manufacturing assembly line. This was automation circa 1970,” Gunkel says.
“Today, however, automation looks entirely different and targets not the routine physical work of the blue-collar factory worker but the routine cognitive activity and decision-making that has been most often associated with white-collar occupations.”
Some occupations are already disappearing. As an example, Gunkel points to the commodities exchange trader.
“Not long ago, these were great entry-level and stepping-stone jobs for college graduates. But recent developments in algorithmic trading—which is both faster and more efficient—have made the commodities exchange trader virtually obsolete,” Gunkel says. “In fact, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the oldest U.S. futures exchange, recently closed its pits, transferring all activity to electronic trading.”
Gunkel, who teaches courses on communication technology, cyberculture, and web design and programming, is author of several books on technology including, “The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots and Ethics” (MIT Press 2012). He currently is working on a new book investigating the challenges machines now pose to our ideas of creativity and artistry. And he is well versed in what’s known as “technological unemployment,” an issue that has its roots in the early 1800s and will sprout in ways unimagined this century.
“The term, ‘technological unemployment,’ was first coined in the 1930s but was already in play and recognized during the 19th century, when the automatic weaving loom began entering the English textile factories and displacing low-skilled labor,” Gunkel says.
The ensuing “Luddite Rebellion” by textile workers takes its name from Ned Ludd, who supposedly attacked a knitting machine in an effort to retain his job. (To this day, individuals who oppose technology are often pejoratively called Luddites.)
Over the last decade, predictions concerning “technological unemployment” have ramped up. A number of books and articles argue, and sometimes quite persuasively, that recent advances in areas such as machine learning, smart systems and big data could lead to a “jobless future.” These books include Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” Ben Way’s “Jobocalypse: The End of Human Jobs and How Robots will Replace Them” and Federico Pistono’s “Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's OK: How to Survive the Economic Collapse and be Happy.”
“On the other hand, many economists remain skeptical (about predictions of a jobless future), arguing what we are now seeing is not that different from earlier social transitions when technological innovation destroyed some jobs but improved other opportunities over time,” Gunkel says.
“I think both sides of this debate get it wrong. The former amps up the fear factor and plays on the robot apocalypse scenario that has been a staple in science fiction. The latter lulls us into a kind of comfortable complacency, saying, in effect, ‘Do not worry about it, everything will be okay.’ The real challenge, for us as researchers, educators and public intellectuals, is to think critically about the future our students will inherit and to prepare them for opportunities that might look very different from what we have known from our own experiences.
“This is not an easy task,” he adds, “but it is crucial for our students and their future.”
A recent study by two Oxford university researchers estimates that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are at risk for replacement by various forms of automation. Gunkel notes that computerized algorithms are being developed not only to simulate creativity but also to generate new scientific theory.
“My concern here is not with the economic statistics of technological unemployment or the particular innovations that are making it possible,” Gunkel says.
“My interest is with the ethical and social aspects of this development. Work is not just a matter of economics, it is also a moral issue that is connected to notions of social cohesion and self-identity. And I am especially interested in how this will affect our students and how we need to begin thinking about educating a generation of graduates for what could be a very different kind of career path.”
For higher education, development of automation and artificial intelligence will require a paradigmatic shift in what we teach, he says. Take for example, Gunkel’s own field of communication.
“Content creation is no longer the exclusive purview of human writers, artists and decision makers,” Gunkel says. “Much of this work can be outsourced to algorithms that can create or assemble original content by accessing big data. For me, this has meant rethinking how we are educating the next generation of communicators and media professionals.
“We as educators,” he adds, “now need to equip students to be competitive against other workers—as well as against algorithms.”
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