Automated reality

The future of work in the time of the machines

Twenty years ago, the idea that I might have an earnest conversation with my sons about choosing a career that’s unlikely to be automated by artificially intelligent robots would have been ridiculous. Today, it’s a surprisingly real consideration.

And it’s apparently on the mind of many other people. There is no shortage of prophetic articles on what jobs are expected to be automated in the coming decades. Insurance underwriters, taxi and truck drivers, retail workers and many more professions are all at risk of being completely automated.

Giving credence to the idea are some of our time’s more respected minds. Bill Gates has been widely quoted after proposing a robot tax on any automaton that takes a human job. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk both warn of what they see as a real threat from artificial intelligence, the former even going as far as to suggest that AI could spell the end of the human race.

We celebrate job creation. Our event last month, the Cascade Capital Corporation Business Growth Awards, centered on just that: honoring companies that bring job and economic growth to our communities.

Automation, however, threatens that job creation. If the speculation is accurate, 20 to 50 percent of existing jobs may be automated in as few as 20 years. No doubt, some of this sounds surreal. But regional employers in some industries can point to technological advances that have led to workforce reductions while increasing productivity and efficiency.

As times change and technology progresses to ubiquity, some harken back to simpler times. This month’s Uniquely features Lehman’s Hardware, a curious but pragmatic destination in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country that has seen many gravitate to nonelectric homemaking solutions, often in reaction to catastrophe. For instance, the store saw its business peak ahead of the Y2K threat that fizzled rather than flamed at the turn of the millennium.

There’s no stopping progress. Not even a luddite-style protest can reverse the trend. We’ll see how businesses, government, communities and my sons adapt. I just hope there’s enough work available that I can one day realize every parent’s dream: a child-free home.

Adam Burroughs is interested in the people and businesses making a difference in Akron/Canton.