Monday, May 18, 2015

Librarians At Risk For Automation

The Wall Street Journal recently asked, is your job creative enough to resist robot automation?
“Jobs that are considered creative today may not be so tomorrow,” according to the report, Creativity versus Robots, written with Nesta, a London-based non-profit research and innovation group. The paper, published last week, delves into the possible effects of automation on the workforce.

The Nesta /Oxford report tries to handicap which occupations are creative enough to avoid near-term automation. Of the  702 occupations categorized in the U.S., 21% ranked as “highly creative,”–offering the most protection against automation. Such jobs included artists, architects, web designers and IT specialists.

Jobs that are highly susceptible to computerization, according to the report:  office administrators, call-center staff, librarians, cattle and crop farmers, loggers, miners, car salesmen and hotel staff.

“The results strongly confirm the intuition that creative occupations are more future– proof to computerization,” the report states, adding that the results also suggest a pervasive restructuring of labor markets over the decades to come. The report urges governments to help workers that are made redundant into novel creative professions.

In libraries, we already have something called automated materials handling where a machine sorts books for reshelving. And with all of the talk of algorithms smart enough to sort information, there may very well come a time when librarians are at an increased risk for automation.

There is also a new book out called Rise of the Robots which discusses what automation will do to the labor market. In the late 20th century, while the blue-collar working class gave way to the forces of globalization and automation, the educated elite looked on with benign condescension. Too bad for those people whose jobs were mindless enough to be taken over by third world teenagers or, more humiliatingly, machines. The solution, pretty much agreed upon across the political spectrum, was education. Americans had to become intellectually nimble enough to keep ahead of the job-destroying trends unleashed by technology, both robotization and the telecommunication systems that make outsourcing possible. Anyone who wanted a spot in the middle class would have to possess a college degree — as well as flexibility, creativity and a continually upgraded skill set.

But, as Martin Ford documents in “Rise of the Robots,” the job-eating maw of technology now threatens even the nimblest and most expensively educated. Lawyers, radiologists and software designers, among others, have seen their work evaporate to India or China. Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams. Particularly terrifying to me, computer programs can now write clear, publishable articles, and, as Ford reports, Wired magazine quotes an expert’s prediction that within about a decade 90 percent of news articles will be computer-­generated.

Ford goes onto say that employers will favor automation because of lower overhead costs, and Ford offers little hope that emerging technologies will eventually generate new forms of employment, in the way that blacksmiths yielded to autoworkers in the early 20th century. He predicts that new industries will “rarely, if ever, be highly labor-intensive,” pointing to companies like YouTube and Instagram, which are characterized by “tiny workforces and huge valuations and revenues.” On another front, 3-D printing is poised to make a mockery of manufacturing as we knew it. Truck driving may survive for a while — at least until self-driving vehicles start rolling out of Detroit or, perhaps, San Jose.

There's something comforting in knowing that it's not just librarians who will go the way of the rotary phone. But the greater implications of an automated work force is, at this point, terrifying.

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