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April 23, 2017

MORADI | Automation Nation

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Ah, springtime. The sun is (relatively) out, flowers are blooming, birds are singing and nearly half of American jobs are at risk of being completely eradicated due to automation.

Automation is hitting the U.S. job market as suddenly as that segue. An oft-cited 2013 study by economist Carl Frey and computer scientist Michael Osborne estimates that 47 percent of American employment is at high risk of being entirely automated. The most automatable jobs are fairly obvious: repetitive manufacturing jobs, telemarketing and occupations that deal mostly with clerking top the list. Some jobs, though, are surprisingly automatable: models and real-estate brokers, for example, have a 97.6 percent and 96.6 percent chance of being automated, respectively. (You can comb through the data yourself; NPR has created a nice little interactive applet to help you do so.)

Don’t be misled by these probabilities, though. Many jobs with a low calculated likelihood can certainly be automated, and many jobs with high likelihood of replacement could stand the test of time. For example, although restaurant servers have a 93.7 percent chance of being automated according to the study, human service provides hospitality that consumers at upscale restaurants have come to expect. On the other hand, although physicians and surgeons rank low with a 0.4 percent chance of automation, surgery is already being automated, at least in part. And, unfortunately for The Sun, while “writers and authors” (separate from “Technical writers” in the categorizations) have a 3.8 percent chance of being automated, robo-journalism already exists and works much more effectively in the digital age than human journalism.

I am of the opinion that widespread automation in sectors traditionally thought to be “white collar” or non-automatable is coming faster than we’d expect, thanks to the buzziest buzzwords in computing, like machine/deep learning and big data. The robots are coming, rapidly and surely, and we need to be prepared. Automation means quick and concentrated unemployment but also the creation of massive amounts of capital. The talk of the town in Silicon Valley is that public policy needs to catch up to the tech sector by considering universal basic income in order to avoid Great Recession-era levels of unemployment. By “taxing the robots,” we can lift the burden from the working class and instead make long-term investments in education and healthcare that raise quality of life for all. Ultimately, we create more interesting and fulfilling roles for human beings. For instance, the aforementioned advent of robo-journalism opens up opportunities for writers to focus their time and energy on smarter takes and more thorough pieces.
This is, of course, quite simplistic and extraordinarily idealistic. It doesn’t take aggressive skepticism to realize that various social and political barriers stand in the way of this naively utopian future. That said, the robotic economy is worth speculating on and, of course, worth preparing for through our academic choices in the short-term. As you pre-enroll in CS 1110 because you think it’ll give you an edge when applying to non-tech jobs (given the saturation of young people who can code in Python, it probably won’t.), consider that basic coding is already being outsourced to countries like India and is beginning to be automated through metaprogramming. Point being, take a step back and analyze whether you’re taking a course due for short-term job prospects (which — don’t misread my point here — are still of the utmost importance for many), or for your long-term intellectual and occupational fulfillment. CS 1110 is a great course that teaches computer literacy, a skill that will be indubitably important when the world becomes computerized beyond what we can imagine. In other words, consider using your time at Cornell at least partly as an opportunity to develop an intellectual repertoire that will guide you to the uncertain future, rather than to, say, your summer analyst position at Goldman.

 

Pegah Moradi is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at pmoradi@cornellsun.com. All Jokes Aside appears every other Monday this semester. 

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