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Robots Could Take Over Even the Boss's Job

Morning, boss. Tech experts predict that artificial intelligence may start to displace jobs for white-collar workers too.

Morning, boss. Tech experts predict that artificial intelligence may start to displace jobs for white-collar workers too. FRANCOIS LENOIR / Reuters

The robots are coming, even for the boss's job.

Up until now, robots and other smart machines have been used to replace blue-collar workers. But a new study by The Pew Research Center and Elon University, released Wednesday, says that while artificial intelligence will continue to replace jobs in factories and shop floors, the coming wave of innovation will threaten significant numbers of white-collar workers, too.

"The collar of the future is a hoodie," said Amy Webb, CEO of strategy firm Webbmedia Group, who believes that while robots won't replace most of the workforce, it will push jobs into other sectors, such as coding.

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Some of the other outcomes predicted by the nearly 1,900 technology experts canvassed for "AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs," include:

  • A transformation of labor, especially in the fields of transportation, fast food and medicine.
  • The accelerating shift of work to machines that can boost productivity and cut costs.
  • A shrinking of the middle class and expansion of the ranks of the unemployed.
  • Creation of new types of work requiring uniquely human capabilities.
  • Freedom from day-to-day drudgery that allows people to define work in a more positive and socially beneficial way.

The report showed that experts think the rise of the robots will bring both disruptions and benefits. When asked if automated artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices will have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025, they were evenly split on the topic.

"Half of the respondents think the impact of AI and robotics on human employment will be positive or at worst neutral, and the other half think that it will displace more jobs than it creates," Aaron Smith, a senior researcher with Pew and co-author of the report, told CNBC.

Even when emerging technologies eliminate specific jobs, there might be a positive effect for some people, Smith explained. For example, if driverless cars become widespread, there will be fewer jobs for taxi drivers and truck drivers. But these vehicles could reduce accidents — saving lives — and make it possible for seniors and people with disabilities to get around more easily.

But the report includes some dire predictions.

"An increasing proportion of the world's population will be outside of the world of work — either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the 'bot-based' economy?" wrote Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at Gigaom, a research group that attempts to humanize the impact of technology.

Mary Joyce, who runs the website Meta-Activism.org, sees the replacement of human workers with robots and algorithms as inevitable.

"There's no reason to believe that firms would behave in any other ways. And social forces, like unions, that would limit these actions, don't have the strength to prevent these changes," Joyce said.

Others said technology will not advance enough in the next decade to substantially impact the job market.

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And some think society will adapt by inventing new types of work, especially jobs that take advantage of uniquely human capabilities, such as small-scale, artisanal and handmade modes of production.

"Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case. Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices," wrote Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google.

The respondents agreed that business leaders, policymakers and educators must all respond more quickly to the rapidly changing workplace. As Howard Rheingold, an educator and Internet sociologist noted, "Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines. And education systems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory."