Wednesday 22 January 2020

Mary Kenny: a spanner in the workers?

How automation limits the career options of our grandchildren

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

'Isn't it interesting," said my elder granddaughter, Kitty, "that so many people in our family are journalists?" She named parents, grandparents, great-grandfathers, uncle, great-uncle. "Well," I said, "that often happens in families. You often see it with doctors, lawyers, plumbers, traders." But then I began thinking about the number of trades and professions which are predicted to disappear or diminish with the onward march of computers, robots and artificial intelligence.

Within the past few decades book-keepers, cashiers and telephone operators have all but gone. Computers have replaced airline reservation clerks and reduced the services of travel agents. Estate agents are said to be doomed as the computer software which searches and defines the property you're buying (or selling) gets ever more sophisticated. The whole world of sales is being computerised.

So, which jobs or professions will last into the future for our grandchildren? The folks who set up the algorithms are working out the predictions.

Anything that can be done by a machine will be done by a machine. You might think that only a teacher can teach, but there are ever more online teaching programmes available. University teaching has been highly computerised - one of the aspects of doing a part-time MA that I found discouraging: the machine seemed to replace the tradition of the human tutorial. Ask a seminar question and you were referred to a "download".

OK, education online will make it more accessible to more people: my son taught himself Italian with the help of an online language learning programme. But by the same token, private language tutors have noticed a decline of business because they've been replaced by an internet service.

The same is claimed about translators. Google now boasts that its translation services, as carried out by a computer, are getting to be as efficient as human interpreters. The great boast of the computer boffins, too, is that artificial intelligence "has no bias", since it has no emotions. Therefore it will be fairer.

There was a study done of Israeli judges which showed that their lordships tended to hand out more emollient sentences after lunch. A computer would never commit such inconsistencies. And yet, isn't there something endearing, and an element of lucky chance, perhaps in such foibles? The accused might cherish the hope that he'll be in the dock after a spot of Cabernet Sauvignon has been partaken. Lawyers we must always have, surely, but the predictions are that legal and financial services will be vulnerable to takeover by artificial intelligence. Goodbye to accountancy, it seems.

Some medical tasks, too, such as diagnostics, are better done by machines. There's a computer at the famous Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer hospital in New York which is apparently ace at diagnostics.

Anything mechanical is vulnerable to the eradication of human employment. The British are experimenting with driverless lorries, and two American states - California and Nevada - have passed legislation to enable driverless cars to get on the road, equipped with safety-guaranteed sensors.

All agricultural technology will be robotised, as will many agricultural tasks: robots in Spain already do some vegetable-picking. It was always a back-breaking job.

Two Oxford academics, Frey and Osborne, wrote a paper on The Future of Employment (complete with incomprehensible algebraic formulae) claiming that "robots are capable of producing goods with higher quality and reliability than human labour". They reckon about half of all jobs are at risk of automation.

Yet even the boffins concede that not everything can be done by artificial intelligence. We're grateful to be informed that robots "cannot yet match the depth and breadth of human perception" - though they're working on it.

Anything that requires the human touch will still be in demand. You can't get your hair done over the internet. You can't eat machinery, the producers and preparers of real food will always be needed. Anything that requires "negotiation, persuasion and care" is likely to remain within the ambit of humans. So mental health therapists, social workers, dance choreographers, artists, actors and clergy seem assured of continuing employment opportunities. Administrators and supervisors in specialist areas will always be needed, and even when the engineering itself is taken over by robots, human engineers need to be in charge of the programmes. But predictions can never be exact, because there is always an unexpected factor: and there's often a reaction against the machine. They said that with the invention of the electronic book, print books would disappear: but print books fought back and became more attractive as objects.

Still, I thought I should warn seven-year-old Kitty that journalism mightn't be a steady bet as a future career. "Oh, I'm not going to be a journalist," she assured me. "I'm going to write stories for children, and draw the pictures myself." Excellent ambition. Story-telling to children will never be replaced by a robot.


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