Ben Jackson
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When will robots steal all our jobs?

From McKinsey & Co’s study on robots at work:

Given currently demonstrated technologies, very few occupations — less than 5 per cent — are candidates for full automation. However, almost every occupation has partial automation potential, as a proportion of its activities could be automated.

The perceived threat of robots taking our jobs has occupied industries from journalism to law and manufacturing for years now. It makes good headlines.

But McKinsey’s deep dive into the issue offers a calmer perspective than you’ll have probably read before. A key point is that the future of work won’t be determined solely by technological advancements. Instead, things such as public opinion, cost, competition, regulations and the law will influence the pace at which robots take over the workplace.

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In trades such as journalism there are multiple layers of activity, like newsgathering, writing, shooting, sub-editing, laying out, sharing. The most realistic picture of the future of journalism is one that incorporates automation, rather than being replaced by it.

In 2014, the LA Times first used Quakebot. Created by journalist and programmer Ken Schwencke, it uses an algorithm to generate a report of an earthquake.

Whenever an alert comes in from the US Geological Survey about a quake above a certain level, Quakebot extracts data from the report and inserts it into a template. The algorithm’s goal, Schwencke told Slate, was

not to write a compelling or insightful story. That’s up to the LAT’s human staff. Rather, it’s to “get the basic information out” as quickly and accurately as possible. That way, “Everybody else can go out and find out: Was anybody hurt? Was anything damaged? What do the people at the USGS actually have to say?”

By the end of that day in 2014, Quakebot’s post had been updated 71 times by writers and editors, who turned it into an in-depth, front-page story.

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The robot takeover is a long way away. But that’s not to say nobody is experiencing the worst effects of automation right now. Says McKinsey:

The effects of automation might be slow at a macro level, within entire sectors or economies, for example, but they could be quite fast at a micro level, for individual workers whose activities are automated or for companies whose industries are disrupted by competitors using automation.

The human stories that emerge from the rise of automation are important and form part of a growing trend, so they should be reported on. But the crucial finding of this latest report is that the robot uprising isn’t scheduled any time soon.

Image: Rog01/Flickr

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Ben Jackson

Editor of The Jackson Review