Denis McCauley | May 11th 2012 | @Technology
Depending on one’s occupation, the prospect of automation holds wonders for some and trepidation for others. Business execs, techies, consultants and futurists alike eagerly anticipate technology’s conquest over more and more parts of the organisation. For these types, the greater automation of operations offers vast new scope for efficiency gains and the creation of new business models. If you’re in charge of a back-office process that is ripe for automation, however, you would naturally wonder where such displacement will leave you. And if you’re a government office-holder, the spectre of wide-scale job displacement thanks to technological progress is a political headache you could do without.
The double-edged sword of technology automation has been a source of controversy for ages. The edges seem to getting sharper, however, in light of views expressed more recently by some prominent experts that technology advances will displace jobs at growing speed. This is the thrust of the argument advanced by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their book Race against the machine. Interviewed in our own recent exercise in crystal-ball-gazing on technology disruption,Agent of change, Mr McAfee argues that with very powerful technologies entering the economy over the next ten years, “many people in jobs ranging from customer service to various types of diagnosis to driving vehicles … will be displaced. And the rate of displacement will increase because technology improves at an exponential rate.” Moreover, he and others are certain that it will no longer just be low-skilled occupations at risk, but increasingly specialists in the medical, legal and other skilled professions as well. Another of our interlocutors, Claire Enders, put it somewhat more bluntly: “Many professions will be decimated by technology.”
Some would take this argument further, as Mr McAfee does, by averring that, due partly to this technology displacement effect, job growth is increasingly being decoupled from economic growth.
A gloomy picture, then, for those in jobs that are most ripe for automation. But is the outlook so bleak at the broader level? A McKinsey study published in 2011 estimated that for every job destroyed by the Internet in small and mid-sized firms in the US, 2.6 jobs have been created. I, too, put faith in the propensity of technological progress to create new occupations. (How many in the 1990s worked as mobile application developers, data governance officers or professional bloggers, for example?) True, they are not always in the same industries, and those displaced may not always be the ones to take up the new jobs. But their positive impact on employment—and economies—has every chance of overshadowing the loss of other jobs through automation.
What new jobs will technology make commonplace in the future, then? Here’s a sampling, with a nod to futurists such as Thomas Frey and others: augmented reality architects, avatar designers, data privacy managers (these exist today), waste data handlers, 3D printing engineers, robot mechanics. And in other realms: gene screeners, hydro-fuel specialists, mass energy-storage engineers, personal brand managers, artificial limb and body part designers. The list can go on …