Will automation gut the IT “middle class”?

IT Field Engineer

As more industries find ways to use automation, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and robots, debate intensifies over the impact of these technologies on employment.

Optimists argue that, rather than replacing humans, automation/AI/ML/robots instead will free up enterprise employees from menial everyday tasks, enabling them to work on higher-value activities. Pessimists portray a future in which humans are enslaved by an interconnected and omniscient machine army. Still others see a happy medium.

Over at The Guardian, economics editor Larry Elliott stipulates that “the age of robots will lead to more jobs” before asking, “What if these jobs are less good and less well paid than the jobs that automation kills off?” Elliott adds:

Robots are likely to result in a further hollowing out of middle-class jobs, and the reason is something known as Moravec’s paradox. This was a discovery by AI experts in the 1980s that robots find the difficult things easy and the easy things difficult. …

In the modern economy, the jobs that are prized tend to be the ones that involve skills such as logic. Those that are less well-rewarded tend to involve mobility and perception. Robots find logic easy but mobility and perception difficult.

Dhaval Joshi, an economist at BCA research, spells out the sobering truth to Elliott: “The jobs that AI can easily replicate and replace are those that require recently evolved skills like logic and algebra. They tend to be middle-income jobs. Conversely, the jobs that AI cannot easily replicate are those that rely on the deeply evolved skills like mobility and perception. They tend to be lower-income jobs. AI is hollowing out middle-income jobs and creating lots of lower-income jobs.”

Which leads us to the impact of automation et al. on IT employment. In a special report last year titled “Automation and Anxiety,” the Economist wrote:

Economists are already about “job polarisation”, where middle-skill jobs (such as those in manufacturing) are declining but both low-skill and high-skill jobs are expanding. In effect, the workforce bifurcates into two groups doing non-routine work: highly paid, skilled workers (such as architects and senior managers) on the one hand and low-paid, unskilled workers (such as cleaners and burger-flippers) on the other.

This pattern will play out in IT as well, warns Praveen Chandrahas in Newsclick.in. “More higher-end and lower-end jobs will be created while displacing a large number of mid-level jobs,” he writes. “The likely lower-end jobs that could be created include data-entry. At the other end of the spectrum, jobs will be created to design algorithms which need to be run.”

Using Google Maps as an example, Chandrahas notes that “a large number of people work on cleansing and entering data collected through different means (satellites, manually collecting, etc). Data scientists and analysts then design algorithms that need to be run on these. Once the algorithms and the data are in place, programs are tuned to learn and modify themselves – eliminating the need for mid-level workers.”

Are you worried that automation/AI/ML/robots will eliminate mid-level IT jobs in your enterprise, or do you believe such fears are overblown?


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