Robots are coming to take your job. That has been a concept that the media has covered extensively, sometimes presenting a world in which automation benefits mankind, and sometimes offering up visions of what could go wrong in Terminator or Battlestar Galactica fashion.
And while robots are not yet (as far as we know) planning to rise up and overthrow humanity, visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk has expressed his fears that we are headed down that path. The Tesla CEO believes that artificial intelligence (AI), a technology key to driving automation, could start the next world war.
That type of warning from a man best known for founding cutting-edge technology companies is especially chilling. It also echoes the overall fear the majority of Americans have about automation.
"Americans are roughly twice as likely to express worry (72%) than enthusiasm (33%) about a future in which robots and computers are capable of doing many jobs that are currently done by humans," according to a recently released report from Pew Research. Those fears may be well-founded going forward, but are U.S. workers already losing jobs to robots and automation?
The robots are among us (sort of)
While we are in the early days of automation, there have been jobs lost to automation already. In fact, 6% of Americans say they have already lost jobs or wages due to automation, according to Pew.
Specifically, 2% of Americans report that they have ever personally lost a job because their employers replaced their positions with a machine or computer program. Another 5% report that they have ever had their pay or hours reduced for the same reason. Taken together, that works out to 6% of U.S. adults who report having been impacted by workforce automation in one (or both) of these ways.
So far, the impact of automation has been felt the most by adults ages 18-24 and it's more common among Latinos, part-time workers and those with relatively low household incomes, Pew reported. That's because in the early days of automation, jobs aren't being lost to Cylon-like humanoid robots, they're being lost to self-serve checkout, ordering kiosks, and ordering via smartphone app.
More robots are coming
While we are currently in a strong job market where wages have been steadily growing largely due to a shortage of available workers, automation could change that. In fact, six of the 10 jobs showing the highest increases in median base pay on September's Glassdoor Local Pay Reports could conceivably be automated. The two jobs with the highest increases -- barista (5.6%) and truck driver (5%) -- both run the risk of being replaced with AI-driven automation. In addition, recruiter, bank teller, restaurant cook, and pharmacy technician are all jobs facing possible replacement.
Replacing truck drivers with robots requires changes to current law, but the technology has already reached the testing phase. Baristas can certainly be replaced by machines, and some of the work done by recruiters can be replaced by algorithms. Bank tellers have already seen job loss to ATMs, and smarter, AI-driven versions of those could easily be created.
Whether to replace a worker with automation/a robot comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. When wages push high enough to justify investment in automation or workers become scarce enough the companies have no choice, they will automate. As more companies automate, the cost of doing so will decrease, taking something that has been happening slowly and speeding it up.
What's next for workers?
Right now, cost and legality may be the only things holding back automation. Pew cited multiple studies showing that about half of all U.S. employment faces some risk of being automated. This included a January report from McKinsey Global Institute that estimated that "up to half of the activities people are currently paid to perform could be automated simply by adapting technologies that already have been proven to work."
What's less clear is what new work will emerge from increasing use of automation. Before there were computers, there were no IT departments. It's very likely that just like inventing cars created the need for mechanics and drivers, the further development of AI, robots, and automation will lead to job development.
Gain more education and skills that aren't easily, or cost-effectively automated and you can probably keep yourself employed.