Somewhere out there, a robot is scheming to take my job.
About a year ago, a breaking news story about a Los Angeles earthquake was fully written by a robot. Gathering data it received from the U.S. Geological Survey, an algorithm wrote and published the story on the Los Angeles Times' website less than three minutes after the trembling began.
News organizations freaked out, some labeling the event as the "rise of the robot reporter," sending all of us into a soul-searching quest to defend ourselves in the face of such a formidable adversary. "But my writing is original, and it oozes with style," many a reporter defiantly told themselves. "A data-crunching robot could never fill my position!"
At The WorldPost's Future of Work Conference, a partnership of The Huffington Post and Berggruen Institute taking place in London this week, a similar anxiety has begun to emerge -- if not with workers, then with the economists who study them.
"According to our research, 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at risk from technology over the next 20 years," Michael Osborne, a co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, told me. The group's research combined U.S. Bureau of Statistics data with a complex machine-learning algorithm of its own to draw its conclusions.
For example, in retail, an algorithm might be a better predictor of customer preferences than a human salesperson thanks to the amount of data companies collect, he said. Logistics will be impacted by fast-moving advancements in autonomous vehicle technology that few took seriously just a few years ago.
"Forklift drivers, truck drivers, agricultural vehicle drivers," Osborne listed. "Those jobs could be gone very soon."
There are some recent trends experts are sharing which show how this new world might look like, when the small percentage of individuals or corporations that own machines (the means of production) are the only ones able to make money, and as the rest of us (the middle class) lose our jobs for the simple fact that #RobotsDoItBetter.
Take the most-talked-about slide of the day (seen below), courtesy of Anthony McAfee, associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The line that has been going up since about 2002 represents total gross domestic product in the U.S. The line that is going down represents wages paid as a percentage of that GDP:
-- Adrian Brown (@_AdrianBrown) March 5, 2015
"This is not just an American phenomenon, it is not even a rich world phenomenon. This same decline in labor share is happening in most countries where we have data across the world, including places like China, India and Mexico," McAfee said.
"China is not offshoring to find cheaper labor," he added. "There is obviously something else going on here."
"It's a societal problem," Dr. Laura Tyson, professor of Business Administration and Economics, at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, told me.
In the U.S., she notes, most job growth is already happening towards the bottom of the pay scale, much of which is driven by people whose traditional middle income manufacturing jobs have been lost to increasingly productive robots in the factory.
"I tend to worry about the quality of the job that will be available for them in the long run," she said.
Few feel that governments are adequately preparing for the shift. Some, however, feel that increased productivity thanks to machines will let humans focus on something we are infinitely better at doing than robots: creative thinking.
"The remaining jobs will be increasingly creative and increasingly social," said Osborne, the Oxford researcher who says 47 percent of jobs are at risk. "I actually think it will be better for society, because these are tasks that we tend to do in our spare time as hobbies, and as we are more displaced by machines it will leave these more fundamentally human tasks to perform."
Which sounds pretty good for people like me, who would love to refine the craft we feel most passionate about. Except... Osborne's final take on my question if this shift might benefit the arts in the long run left me feeling pretty dismal:
"Benefit? Hmmm," he started. "I think there will be new kinds of art, and more people will be freed up to make art, but wages will probably get less competitive in the arts, especially because there's going to be a lot more supply."
Produced in collaboration with The WorldPost.