Andres Oppenheimer

Andrés Oppenheimer: The future of our jobs

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gestures as he speaks during a panel “Progress toward Parity” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. A new WEF study warned that advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, 3-D printers, genetics, biotechnology and other new technologies will have a bigger impact on employment than many people thought.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gestures as he speaks during a panel “Progress toward Parity” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. A new WEF study warned that advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, 3-D printers, genetics, biotechnology and other new technologies will have a bigger impact on employment than many people thought. AP

The headlines from last week’s World Economic Forum meeting attended by 40 heads of government in Davos, Switzerland, focused on Islamic State terrorism, collapsing oil prices and Europe’s refugee crisis. But what I found most interesting — and under-reported — was the group’s forecast that robots will kill more than five million jobs over the next five years.

A massive study released at the WEF meeting warned that advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, 3-D printers, genetics, biotechnology and other new technologies will have a bigger impact on employment than many people thought. And the new technologies will affect workers in industrialized and developing countries alike, unless countries update their education systems.

Among the most endangered jobs will be those of sales people, cashiers, administrative clerks, assembly line workers and taxi drivers, the report says. Growing automation of checkout processes will phase out large numbers of cashiers’ at stores, while online shopping will continue reducing sales jobs.

Simultaneously, advanced robots and 3-D printers will affect mass manufacturing industries because more assembly-line workers will be replaced by robots or individualized 3-D production at homes or local printers.

The “internet of things” — the new Internet connections through which objects will communicate with one another, much as people do today — will impact many industries, it says.

While soda vending machines in most countries are still checked out by an inspector on a daily basis to determine how many bottles should be replaced, such task will increasingly be done automatically through direct Internet communication between vending machines and supply trucks. And the supply trucks may soon be self-driven.

“It is now possible to create cars, trucks, aircraft, and boats that are completely or partly autonomous, which could revolutionize transportation, if regulations allow, by 2020,” the report says.

The study, entitled “The future of jobs report,” is based on a survey of senior executives at 371 big companies in 15 countries, including the United States, several European nations, Mexico and Brazil. It concludes that technological advances will kill about 7.1 million jobs. At the same time, they will create 2 million new jobs, which would lead to a net loss of 5.1 million jobs.

Among the jobs that will grow in the near future are those dealing with installation, repair and maintenance of robots and 3-D printers, and data analysts for virtually every industry. Architects, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians will be in high demand, the study says.

Intrigued by whether technological advances will impact rich and developing countries alike, I asked that question to Marisol Argueta, the WEF’s Latin American director. Definitely, she said, citing the case of car manufacturing plants that are increasingly being manned by robots.

But what surprised me the most was her assertion that even Latin America’s agriculture and farming industries will be rocked by technological change, as China is expected to open its first commercial farm that will mass produce cloned cows.

Indeed, a Chinese-Korean joint venture will open a huge animal cloning factory in China’s coastal city of Tianjin this year that plans to produce 100,000 cloned cows and calves shortly, and about 1 million in a second phase, according to a recent report in the China Daily newspaper.

My opinion: Technology, although it can have negative effects, tends to overall do more good than harm. Pessimists have been forecasting that technology would kill mass employment since the industrial revolution two centuries ago, when angry workers destroyed textile machines claiming that millions of jobs would disappear, and it hasn’t happened. The percentage of world poor has fallen significantly in recent decades.

If anything, people are working less than the 16-hour days that our ancestors used to work in agrarian societies. We may work fewer hours, and have more flexible jobs.

But what’s clear is that countries have to modernize their education systems to produce more engineers, architects and innovation-focused humanities graduates.

Sixty-five percent of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t exist today, the WEF report says. If we don’t prepare our children to have more technical skills, and to be more entrepreneurial and innovative, we may be more threatened by the coming wave of technology.

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