Technology’s potential impact on workforce “disturbing”

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A newly published paper by researchers from Boston University and Columbia University has suggested that science-fiction fears of robots taking over could become a reality – and sooner than we realise.

At least, they could take over in the world of work.

The researchers simulated an economy featuring two categories of workers: high-tech employees who produce software code, and low-tech employees who produce human services (these professions included the likes of artists, priests and psychologists).

Initially, high demand for coding led to the high-tech employees seeing an increase in their wages.

However, as the simulation developed, the amount of legacy code grew. The authors of the study said that as this happens, some smart machines gain the ability to learn tasks, leading the writing of new code to become redundant.

The demand for high-tech employees ultimately became limited to those needed for general maintenance such as updates and repairs. Remaining high-tech workers ended up transitioning into the service sector, pushing down wages for employees already in the industry.

According to the research paper, robots “can leave all future high-tech workers and, potentially, all future low-tech workers worse off” over time.

“In short, when smart machines replace people, they eventually bite the hands of those that finance them,” its authors added.

The authors had few solutions to the problem, but did suggest taxing those who initially see benefit from the new technologies and using the proceeds to supplement workers’ pay when their wages begin to decline.

“Absent appropriate fiscal policy that redistributes from winners to losers, smart machines can mean long-term misery for all,” the authors stated, saying that the “central message is disturbing”.

Related articles:

Robot plumbers and holograms: what will the Kiwi workplace be like in 2040?
How will technology change the way New Zealand works in 2015?
Vegetable walls and wearable computers: would you work in this office?
 

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