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Is the Northland ready for automation?

Robots aren’t coming for our jobs. They’re already here — and getting smarter.

Nearly half of all jobs in the United States could be automated “over the next decade or two,” according to a 2013 study from the University of Oxford. A more recent report says fear of an automated future is causing people emotional and even physical distress.

“Automation anxiety has clearly returned,” writes Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher David Autor.

Having adapted to the rise of machines in labor-intensive fields such as agriculture and manufacturing, these new fears are premised on artificial intelligence taking over higher-skilled jobs and leaving millions of people unemployed or underemployed.

Health care, which employs more people in the Northland than any other industry, is undergoing a technological transformation just like every other field. Even though the sector is expected to add thousands of jobs in the region over the next decade, talk of robot caretakers for the elderly is moving from science fiction to reality, and fast.

“Although Americans tend to have a positive view of technology overall, this survey finds that the continuing march of new technologies is causing them concern,” the Pew Research Center reported last year. “Roughly three-quarters of Americans expect that widespread automation of jobs will lead to greater levels of economic inequality than exist today.”

The United States ranks ninth when it comes to automation preparedness, according to a report released this year by The Economist Intelligence Unit. The report says preparing for artificial intelligence means coping with “the prospect that large numbers of roles performed today by humans, wearing white or blue collars, will be eliminated by machines.” Doing so means taking initiatives in “curriculum reform, lifelong learning, occupational training and workplace flexibility.”

Even in countries that do this well, such as Germany and South Korea, the report notes: “No countries are genuinely ready for the age of intelligent automation.”

“The lack of engagement between policymakers, industry, educational specialists and other stakeholders … is alarming.”

Optimists claim machines will change the way we work, but not replace us.

Take self-driving cars and trucks, for example: “One day trucking will be similar to piloting a plane,” said Adam Lang, chief risk officer for Halvor Lines in Superior. “You need someone to take it off; you need someone to land it; and you need someone to take the yolk when things get dicey.”

Thomas Hayes Davenport and Julia Kirby wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2015 that we should consider artificial intelligence a friend, not a foe.

“What if, rather than asking the traditional question — what tasks currently performed by humans will soon be done more cheaply and rapidly by machines? — we ask a new one,” they write. “What new feats might people achieve if they had better thinking machines to assist them?”

Lang said it’s a matter of adaptation.

“We’re going to strange new places,” he said.

While the Pew survey found Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of limiting the role robots will have in our future workplaces, researchers like Autor are pushing back and saying we can prepare without despair.

“A construction site without construction workers produces nothing,” Autor writes. “Construction workers supply tasks such as control, guidance and judgment that have no current machine substitutes and which therefore become more valuable as machinery augments their reach.”

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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