As machines get smarter and/or more capable, they can take over more tasks that used to be done by humans. From ATMs to self-help kiosks at fast-food restaurants, the past several decades have seen many machines come onto the scene that can do valuable jobs. While ATMs and self-help kiosks have changed what some bank tellers and fast-food restaurant cashiers do, they haven’t replaced them completely, just pushed them to fill roles that require more distinctly human capabilities. What other roles could robots fill, and who is truly at risk for job displacement due to automation?
Could robots do police work, for instance? Dubai Police have been experimenting with robotic police for the past couple of years, and the organization says it wants 25% of its patrolling force to be unarmed robots by 2030. Dubai Police used the first automated police officer in the region to patrol areas of the city, help identify wanted criminals using facial-recognition software, and provide a way for the public to report crimes. In China too, police robots are patrolling busy areas, looking for known criminals and simply being available to “protect against violence or unrest”. China’s AnBots can navigate autonomously through crowds, and they can even fire stun guns, which are remotely controlled by a human police officer.
With the era of autonomous vehicles approaching, perhaps robots will also begin to take over traffic cop duties. Last year, Ford filed a patent for an autonomous police vehicle that can recognize traffic law violations and pursue the assailant’s vehicle. The patent reads: “Routine police tasks, such as issuing tickets for speeding or failure to stop at a stop sign, can be automated so that human police officers can perform tasks that cannot be automated.” While it may take many years before robocops and autonomous police vehicles take over some basic duties from human police officers, the idea that they someday could is indicative of just how much change is coming thanks to automation.
Perhaps even lawyers and doctors may one day need to be “reskilled” to take on new tasks within their field of work. Case Crunch already proved in its Lawyer Challenge, an AI (artificial intelligence) vs. lawyers competition, that artificially intelligent systems can reliably predict legal decisions—in some cases much better than human lawyers. Doctors, too, could feel the effect of automation, thanks to the rise of robotic surgery, virtual medicine, and even AI-enabled health apps.
In reality, though, humans who work as police officers and other first responders, as well as lawyers and doctors, aren’t the ones who are most at risk of job displacement due to automation. In most, if not all fields, tasks that can be automated only make up a small portion of what a human in these roles can accomplish. High-risk jobs are those that include manual, relatively uncomplicated labor in industries like manufacturing, retail, and logistics, among others.
As for who will be affected by automation, a working paper on demographics and automation published by the National Bureau of Economic Research reports the demographic change—i.e., an increasing ratio of older to middle-aged workers—is associated with greater adoption of robots and other automation technologies, suggesting these workers may be more at risk of job displacement. As populations in many nations age and stay longer in the workforce, governments and industries must consider how to reskill these workers so they can continue to contribute in a valuable, fulfilling way.
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