The Editor’s Desk: Rise of the robots

The Editor’s Desk: Rise of the robots

How long before your job is outsourced to technology?

At the end of the 1933 film Dinner at Eight, there’s an eerily prescient comment about automation. Carlotta (Marie Dressler), an aging actress, runs across Kitty, an ambitious young trophy wife (Jean Harlow, who has been poured into a form-fitting satin dress that leaves little to the imagination).

Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.

Carlotta: [Nearly trips in disbelief] Reading a book?

Kitty: Yes. It’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?

Carlotta: [Looking Kitty up and down] Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.

It’s almost impossible to say if the line about machinery taking the place jobs was an invention of the screenwriters, meant to get a disbelieving laugh from the audience and set up Dressler’s last line, or if there actually was a book written in the early 1930s that predicted this eventuality.

Either way, we’re currently living in a world where many jobs that were previously performed by humans aren’t in danger of being taken over by machinery: they already have been. I was at Save-On-Foods in Kamloops recently, for the first time in a couple of years, and noticed that half of the cashiers were gone, their check-outs replaced by self-serve ones. (I opted for one of the human-staffed lanes; my few experiences with self-serve checkouts have not gone well for me, and if I’m going to be humiliated by technology I’d prefer that it not be in public.)

Some fast food restaurants have already added self-ordering kiosks, with more announcing that they will soon be doing so, to improve efficiency and/or combat rising minimum wage rates. The CEO of Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, predicted last year that a combination of automation, robots, and artificial intelligence (AI) could replace human workers in much of the fast-food service industry by the mid-2020s. A former chief executive of McDonald’s said in 2016 that automation has done away with half the human jobs in the company since he started with them in the 1960s.

The bugs are currently being worked out of self-driving cars, so their advent is probably a little ways off. However, once the technology is perfected—and one has to think that’s a case of when, not if—self-driving delivery and transport trucks won’t be too far behind, eliminating untold jobs. Amazon is already using drones to deliver some lighter-weight packages directly to customers’ houses.

While promoting jobs in long-term care, BC Care Providers CEO Daniel Fontaine emphasized that these jobs are largely immune to automation. Why? Because one thing robots and AI don’t do is empathy, which is why social workers can also rest easy. Other jobs that are probably safe because of what technology lacks include songwriters (understanding of the human condition), youth sports coaches (leadership), and hairdressers and cosmetologists (every face and head of hair is different).

So when looking for a career, take into consideration what a robot can’t do, and you’ll probably be a safe; at least for a little while.

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