The robots are coming

robot-handA recent article in Forbes quotes McDonald’s former president and CEO, Ed Rensi, as saying that a $15 minimum wage would lead to greater automation within its restaurants.

Which means, of course, fewer McJobs for real humans.

Imagine this: You walk into a McDonalds, speak your order into a microphone, and a synthetic, albeit soothing, female voice asks, “Want fries with that hamburger?” You get the picture.

The robots are coming. They’d be coming even if the minimum wage remained at $7 an hour. Because, if you’re a corporation, $7 an hour is $7 too much. Zero is way more appealing.

The capitalist agenda

Anything that is repetitive, requires a level of precision, and can be automated will be automated. The reason is simple. Automation pays for itself, and makes corporations and their stockholders richer. The capitalist agenda: greed is good.

robot-armA great many signs have been pointing toward the future of automation for some time now. Robots are already widely being used in multiple industries: automotive; aerospace; alternative energy; and many more.

And virtually all of those industries have been able to benefit by automation, reducing overhead, increasing productivity, and improving overall quality.

Now, add in the advances made in computer science, artificial intelligence, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering—plus the downward cost curve for these technologies—and you have ever-increasing numbers of tasks that can be automated.

Of course, you might think, automation of menial, repetitive jobs is no big deal. It frees up humans to do jobs that require more brain power.

Except that we’re already starting to see automation insinuate itself into those white-collar jobs, as well.

Our crumbling fourth estate

Our vaunted free press has been dumbing down for years, pandering to our society’s increasingly short attention span. Now automation appears to be hastening journalism’s demise.

robot-reporterSurely, you argue, journalism requires a thinking, feeling human to research and write the articles we read in newspapers and online.

Turns out, no, it doesn’t. At least not always.

The Associated Press, a well-established news service, has been publishing 3000 articles a quarter that are generated without human bylines. AP uses a program from Automated Insights, a company that has developed a big data and natural language platform that uses a set of rules to generate stories.

This is only the beginning. Twelve thousand published articles a year means that the AP can employ roughly 50 fewer human journalists. How many Woodwards and Bernsteins are we losing as a society, one can only wonder.

The randomness of creativity

And speaking of what we view online, another white-collar career that could be affected by automation is marketing copywriting.

lightbulb-mechanicalA company named Persado is developing what it describes as a “cognitive content platform [that] generates language that inspires action.”

The Persado platform automatically creates and tests variations of emails and other promotional material, enabling marketers to more quickly evaluate campaign approaches. The platform is said to take the “randomness of creativity” out of the equation.

There’s a chilling thought for you.

An approach like that could be applied by any organization that wishes to persuade its users, readers, or customers along a certain path. And, in the end, it could put a lot of marketing companies out of business.

Doctors, lawyers, and…financial advisors?

Journalism and marketing are just the tip of the iceberg. How about doctors, lawyers, and financial advisors? Those professions are also seeing the invasion of intelligent programs and machines.

robot-surgeonIn medicine, it’s said that technology will replace 80% of what doctors do, including diagnosing diseases, helping to make treatment decisions, and recommending behavioral modifications.

It’s hard to say whether this will mean fewer doctors and medical staff positions or better treatment—or both. But it’s clear that big data, improved sensors, machines that dispense anesthetic during surgery, and even robots that perform surgery itself are all playing a factor in transforming the medical establishment.

In the law profession, big data is beginning to play a significant role. For example, rather than have law clerks spend hundreds of hours researching case law, a service called eDiscovery, can identify, collect, and produce any relevant information for a legal case that was electronically stored, including emails, documents, social media posts, and so on. Applying algorithms and other pattern recognition technology, a single lawyer can sift through high volumes of electronic data and discover applicable information that can affect the outcome of a case.

In addition, big data is helping out in the areas of legal cost management, litigation strategies, and predictive outcomes.

When it comes to financial planning, the options have been do it yourself, or hire a financial planner.

Now, with the wealth of information available on the Internet and the ability to analyze this data with specialized algorithms, a third option has emerged: robo-advisors. Online sites such as SigFig and Betterment offer do-it-yourselfers options to run scenarios and gain advice based on quantitative data analysis.

While there are real people associated with these online financial planning sites, the idea is that they can scale well beyond what a typical financial planner could handle. Not only in the sheer number of clients they can service, but also in the ability to aggregate and analyze the data of thousands, even millions, of customers. In this way, they can continually and quickly adjust their models to adapt to changing markets and optimize investments.

These services are popular with millennials. As investment and financial planning models increasingly move toward online providers, the number of real live financial planners is bound to drop precipitously.

Will we adapt?

Those are just a few examples of how the professional job market is changing. The change is accelerating and will only expand as our so-called job providers look to cut costs and increase productivity.

people-get-readyThat subject and all of its implications are explored in detail in a book entitled People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.

The authors, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, argue that perhaps our greatest challenge will be to ensure that the inevitable technological progress serves all of humanity, rather than just the wealthy. From the book:

The “genius” of the digital revolution—with all of its apps and smart technologies and advances in automation, with all of its blurring of lines between humans and machines, with all of its progress—is its exceptional efficiency. The changes that define the future that is now have nothing to do with job creation. Why would they? They are being developed and implemented by behemoth corporations that seek to maximize profits, not employment.

What the world will look like in 20 years is taking shape now. Will our society adapt to growing populations and fewer good-paying professional jobs?

Right now, it’s not looking good.

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