Today, it seems there is nothing that technology can’t do. Computers charged with artificial intelligence (AI) are outplaying our best and brightest, a fleet of driverless trucks has driven across Europe, robots are even helping to serve food and conduct job interviews. Despite the seemingly limitless promise of technology, there is a wide held belief that our ability to imitate and even improve on what humans can do using technology has actually begun to make human labour obsolete in many areas. This has more people worried about their jobs than ever before.
But what does this actually mean for the future of work? When examining the impact of automation on the labour force, there are essentially two schools of thought.
Resistance is futile?
In one potential scenario, the superior processing power and efficiency of technology will inevitably squeeze humans out of an enormous number of jobs. Take, for example, the truck driving profession. It wasn’t too long ago that a self-driving vehicle was a figment of the very distant future. Now, a fleet of autonomous trucks has driven across Europe and the rapid adoption of this technology is likely not too far behind. Even though this technology would represent a massive leap forward, it has the potential to automate the work performed by a significant number of Canadians. This could put a sizable portion of the labour force out of work. In 2011, there were nearly 262, 000 transport truck drivers in Canada.
Modern utopia: human and machine, working together
But the future of work might not be so bleak for mankind. Some believe that technology is more likely to only replace certain job tasks as opposed to entire occupations. To illustrate this, let’s go back to the truck driver. When autonomous vehicles do finally hit the road, they will in all likelihood still have drivers. But, as a result of technology their jobs will fundamentally change. Some speculate that truck drivers’ new role will likely involve city driving, but when it comes the highway the truck will take over. This will eliminate human error and make the profession safer and more productive.
A current example of robots complementing humans are the industrial ‘cobots’. This new breed of smart, lightweight robots interacts with humans and aids in performing the “dull, dirty, and dangerous” tasks that people either don’t want to do, or are ill-equipped to do. This suggests that the jobs of the future may be more specialized and less routine.
In addition, when technology improves efficiency and productivity, it can lead to a virtuous cycle that increases demand for labour. This is likely the reason why technology has yet to result in major increases in aggregate unemployment. To illustrate this, it is useful to examine the now ubiquitous ATM. In the past, this potentially disruptive technology was thought to be a driving force behind the inevitable elimination of the bank teller, but in reality ATMs actually resulted in more jobs for bank tellers in the U.S. by increasing productivity and making branches cheaper to operate, which helped to increase demand for branches. The bank tellers’ jobs also became less routine and more specialized.
Automation of Canadian jobs
To help Canadians better understand the effects that automation can have on the labour force, in our report The Talented Mr. Robot: The impact of automation on Canada’s workforce, we applied prominent methodologies from both Oxford professors Frey and Osborne and McKinsey & Company to Canadian data for the first time.
Overall we found that nearly 42 percent of the Canadian labour force is at a high risk of being affected by automation within the next 10 to 20 years. This does not mean that all these jobs will be lost, but it does suggest that these occupations possess characteristics that make them more susceptible to automation. We also discovered that there will likely be major job restructuring as a result of new technology. Using a different methodology, we found that nearly 42 percent of the tasks that Canadians are currently paid to do can be automated using existing technology.