back to article Amazing new boffinry breakthrough: Robots are eating our brains

The Pew Research Center's latest report, The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training, warns that machines are eating our brains. "Brains" here refers to the contents of our brains, our skills, rather than actual gray matter. "Machines are eating humans' jobs talents," the report declares as a prelude to its exploration of the …

  1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    The workforce of the future?

    Welcome to the post-scarcity society... it's being swept under the carpet but we're going to need to think about it.

    Since I was a child in the sixties I've been promised (along with energy too cheap to meter and flying cars) so much leisure time that I won't know what to do with it. I'm still waiting, but it might just come along just after I retire, in time to stuff things up royally for granddaughter unless it's *very* carefully managed.

    The export of jobs to cheap labour/zero contract gig economy is not a lasting solution because sooner or later there aren't any cheap labour pools left - and if you have a world-wide economy that relies on people buying stuff they don't need and throwing it away, you'd better make damn sure that people have money to buy things with.

    For some reason I'm thinking of a science fiction short story in which robots are making widgets in one building, and in the next, robots are busily using them up and wearing them out...

    1. MatsSvensson

      Re: The workforce of the future?

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: The workforce of the future?

        Thanks, Mats - for some reason I had Daniel F Galouye in mind, but couldn't place it.

    2. The Onymous Coward

      Re: The workforce of the future?

      I think we are getting closer. I'm 35, but have already had two sabbaticals totalling three years. It's easy enough to do if you're a) an IT contractor and b) willing to forego unnecessary shiny shiny such as a new Merc on the drive every year or a home cinema setup to rival IMAX.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @ The Onymous Coward

        Taking sabbaticals isn't the same thing. You're basically taking some of your retirement early - i.e. take five years off when you are younger and retire five years later than you could/would have if you didn't take any time off.

        The idea of working less isn't about working full time and taking long breaks, it is about "full time" becoming working three days a week with a four day weekend instead of working five days a week with a two day weekend.

        1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

          Re: @ The Onymous Coward


          There's something a bit ridiculous that we're working patterns that have survived basically unchanged from agricultural times; when you had to work all the hours of daylight every day (time off Sunday to go to church, so you could be lectured about your unimportance in the great scheme of things) just to make sure you had enough to eat in the cold dark days of winter.

          Sometimes I wonder just how many (or how few) jobs are actually necessary - would we really, for example, be any worse off if some of the technical toys had never been invented?

        2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

          Re: @ The Onymous Coward

          I'm still pondering the concept of an in-office sabbatical... the biggest problem so far seems to be my own work ethic.

        3. The Onymous Coward

          Re: @ The Onymous Coward

          @DougS - I agree; my point was more that the long sabbatical is much more prevalent than it was even ten years ago. We're /on the way/ to working fewer hours, but I'm not sure whether a legal, cultural or economic impulse will usher in the 4-day week.

          I would suggest that most office-based staff already do a 4-day week by dint of long lunch breaks, copious web browsing and the odd day "working" from home, but it would be nice not to have to pretend.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: @ The Onymous Coward

            I think the long sabbatical is more prevalent now only because 1) contract work is more prevalent now and 2) having a long career with one or two companies over your working life is almost entirely a thing of the past, so people have more gaps in their working career than they used to whether by choice or by circumstance.

            In other words, it is easy to take time off when you don't have a job. I have taken long breaks on occasion like you, and it was partially by choice and partially without choice. I only take long term contracts, so they're usually be six months initially, though a few I did three months if I knew extensions were almost guaranteed. Usually I don't know for sure about renewals until a month or so before the end date, so I don't bother to start contacting my network to find my next contract until the previous one is done.

            Since it always takes a few months to get a gig set up, that enforces some vacation time since I don't take as much during contracts as I really should - for obvious reasons: is hard for me to make myself take vacations when I know it not only costs the cost of the vacation, but also the opportunity cost of what I would have made if I didn't take vacation! When I'm not working that opportunity cost is zero, so I feel a lot better about taking long vacations. Or as you call them, "sabbaticals" :)

            1. Triggerfish

              Re: @ The Onymous Coward

              Thing is sabbaticals are alright if you can afford them, but if you are in a job paying less then taking unpaid time off is not always a choice you have, these are the people who will struggle if hours get cut.

    3. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: The workforce of the future?

      Everyone talks about this "post-scarcity" stuff when there's more than one thing that can be scarce. How about space to live? Or how about space needed to locate and extract all the resources all of us need to live? Does all that "post-scarcity" talk take all the other things we need into consideration?

    4. fajensen Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: The workforce of the future?

      and if you have a world-wide economy that relies on people buying stuff they don't need and throwing it away,

      If one change the world-wide economy so that the profit-centre is not actually in the "making and selling of stuff" but "the bonds made from financing for someone to buy the stuff being made", then it is only on small additional step to not actually make any stuff at all: Just do the financing and securitisation part. Robots can easily lie about the underlying asset allegedly securing the finance re-packaged as bonds. The perfect digital e-con-me, as long as those HDD's are spinning, there shall be Growth!

      Why does one think that GE-Finance is now the biggest part of GE the industrial conglomerate, HP finance is at least 1/3 of the total "value" of the business, *Everything* rapidly becoming a flat-rate subscription model?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I think we'd have to hope that low-cost automation will help economic favoritism balance out economies. It's either that or to have rational politics and that's less likely.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      When it comes to life itself, politics can never be rational. Due to survival instinct, it's practically unheard of for people to volunteer to just "disappear". Most that actually do it put a price for the privilege: taking others with them. It's such a touchy issue that I wouldn't be surprised if the O-word is even more taboo in political circles than the N-word, simply because the first to mention it gets outed as being in favor of mass murder (even IF it were to become the only practical option before the planet goes past the tipping point).

  3. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    "examines whether educational methods and institutions can keep pace"

    Count me among the pessimists:

    1) The education industry/establishment is not doing a good job in retraining existing workers automated/outsourced/offshored out of their jobs. Adult workers need to keep earning to keep themselves and their families going so they have difficulty going back to school for a year or two. Businesses generally prefer young people with this new training anyway, because they have fewer salary/work-life balance expectations, lower benefits costs and a longer productive life span as employees,

    2) The cost of professional and college education keeps rising and is becoming uneconomical. There is some interesting and cost-efficient work being done in online education, but so far most of the institutions that offer it are looked at as offering "second-class" education, and therefore second class job placement.

    3) Many people are better doers than learners, struggle through high school and say "that's enough of that". Now, maybe on a societal level they should find a way to buckle down and be better students, but by the time they are 15-20 years old, these patterns are usually set for life.

    4) Once we get more autonomous systems/AI, your Uber-style jobs are mostly going away to autonomous vehicles. Add to that things like dog-walking and delivery duties. All that will be left will be drivers for people who object to being driven autonomously, which is maybe 10%-20% of the "ride-sharing" market. Maybe it will be 4-5 years until we see reasonably safe autonomous vehicles/task performing robots, maybe it will be 10-12 years, but we will see it, unless the technology is essentially outlawed.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: "examines whether educational methods and institutions can keep pace"

      When you get right down to it, the list of jobs that absolutely require a meatbag presence is pretty short and getting shorter. Most of them are liaison-type jobs like personal caregivers where any attempt at substitution runs afoul of Uncanny Valley. Others will probably involve "no two jobs the same" types where the versatility of the human body is still an advantage.

      1. fajensen Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: "examines whether educational methods and institutions can keep pace"

        the list of jobs that absolutely require a meatbag presence is pretty short and getting shorter

        The list of legal jobs .... See!?

        With robots come perfect surveillance and enforcement of all available policies and laws, with people ... this has proven to be not so practical and totally not scalable.

        The glorious robotised future will hold lots of "Breaking Bad" kinda careers, people cooking up stuff, making things, doing things, providing goods and services "off the books and off the grid" as it were.

        I am considering taking summer classes in synthetic biology to get ahead of the curve, there is so much that can be accomplished with "common" yeast.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "examines whether educational methods and institutions can keep pace"

      What's already happening is that white collar jobs, the insurance industry in claims as an example, are the ones first under threat. Not those "burger flippers." It turns out that expert systems, such as Watson, are turning out to be easier to use in automating those jobs rather than blue collar. Clinicians are another example of jobs under immediate threat. I can already see the handwriting on the wall with respect to all the different fields of engineering that I've worked in professionally.

    3. HandleAlreadyTaken

      Re: "examines whether educational methods and institutions can keep pace"

      There is another issue though; even with education, humans won't be able to keep pace with machines. Humans have hard built-in biological limits; education may help humans perform closer to those limits, but can't expand them. And improvements in the current generation of machines are inherited by the next generation directly, while your hard earned education won't be passed on to your kids: humanity's evolution is Darwinian while machines evolve under a Lamarckian model. The capabilities of machines grow so much faster than humans' that, if things continue apace, quite soon there will be nothing physical or intellectual an average human can do that a machine can't do better and faster.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: "examines whether educational methods and institutions can keep pace"

        But doesn't the Lamarckian model run into trouble in regards to improvements? Machines haven't yet made the significant leap towards self-improving (in the mechanical sense) machinery. Improvements at this point still take innovations and leaps of intuition still only possible in humans.

  4. Bruce Woolman

    A corporate tax on profits is not enough. We need a robot tax

    Automation, and now enhanced automation, brings higher productivity and higher profits...obviously. This kind of equipment needs to be taxed or levied in some way ... not depreciated like ordinary equipment. Progressive societies that balance the public good against corporate interests will, ultimately, have to milk the robotic cash cow for the sake of social stability. Bill Gates has already proposed this idea as a robot income tax.

    Capitalism works. Corporate objectives and social objectives are often congruent. But we know from experience that capitalism left unchecked is flawed as a tool for promoting the general welfare. Which is what most of us care about. Unrestrained capitalistic institutions monopolize, pollute, and exploit people. Now they can discard people permanently -- those troublesome workers -- in exchange for tireless uncomplaining workers. A well-thought-out tax on the latter will slow the robot transition by reducing the profitability slope of automation. At the same time the funds realized in such a levy could be utilized properly to help contribute to social transformation; that is, for things like universal guaranteed resources and health care. And development of a more artisan-based human work culture. We can train makers, and more nurses and doctors and trainers and entertainers and story tellers.

    Henry Ford paid his workers well at the outset because he understood they they would also be his customers. Robots wear nothing, eat nothing, drink nothing, watch nothing and they certainly buy nothing. Even the dimmest business people understand that they will need paying customers. As this trend matures values could very well change. And we may come to value human contributions more. Robots could well free us as was sometimes envisioned by the futurists of the past. Or if their introduction is pursued thoughtlessly they could lead to a huge class upheaval.

    The choice is ours. Milk the cow or have it trample us to death.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: A corporate tax on profits is not enough. We need a robot tax

      Trouble is, the corporates control the governments. How do you intend to institute a productivity tax with them in control? Furthermore, since corporates aren't people, how do you prevent them simply passing it on to the consumers in the form of higher prices? That's always been the bug-a-boo about taxing businesses. There's nothing preventing them passing it on.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A corporate tax on profits is not enough. We need a robot tax

        What's wrong with them passing it on? That's what they do with wages they pay, healthcare they pay and so forth today. Currently we tax labor, in the form of income taxes that workers pay. When the "workers" are robots, if you want something like the same system you tax them.

  5. Brian Miller Silver badge

    Ned Ludd is dead

    The neo-Luddites are the bot masters, and they aren't making a dent in the advance of the solid state society.

    Yes, it would be nice for companies to wake up a bit to the fact that society is stable only as long as the underclass (99% of us) are fed and employed. We don't riot, we don't set fire to their houses and pull them out for a lynching. (The Rodney King - Los Angeles riots were 25 years ago, and nobody was starving. I'm guessing you'd need to be at least 30 years old to maybe have a direct memory of them.)

    What would a robot tax accomplish? Would it actually result in more human employment? Usually taxes are regarded as necessary overhead, and if the taxes are too onerous, then companies move their production elsewhere. Once a factory of robots is set up in a country where the parent company won't be bothered, don't expect them to come back and hire workers in first world nations.

    Imagine that a neo-Luddite writes software to brick the robots. So there's some down time, the robots and network gets hardened, and everything goes back to being productive. That means there's no effect in the long term.

    It has been proven that software can write software. Just give it a business case, and libraries are cobbled together in short order. The field will widen, until one day most software will be written by other software. It will be tested by software. It will be marketed by software.

    Back in the 1930s there was the Work Projects Administration, along with the Federal Project Number One for skilled people. Would something similar be a solution for this? I have no idea, but I do know it would take more money that the government has.

    But to keep my brains from rotting, I'm contributing to open source projects, and doing my best to keep myself up-to-date. It's a hedge against what may come, but we don't need to have a rise-of-the-machines to being on the receiving end of discrimination.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Ned Ludd is dead

      "Yes, it would be nice for companies to wake up a bit to the fact that society is stable only as long as the underclass (99% of us) are fed and employed. We don't riot, we don't set fire to their houses and pull them out for a lynching."

      And that's assuming the 1% don't simply respond with Terminators or automated massacre machines.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ned Ludd is dead

        An interesting recent trend is the rapid increase in the use of immuno-suppressants to treat various chronic diseases lately, thus setting up a broad range of people for whatever nasty plagues ('Spanish flu' anyone?) that might come along. Just an observation.

      2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: Ned Ludd is dead

        "And that's assuming the 1% don't simply respond with Terminators or automated massacre machines."

        No need for those, and too complicated and too expensive anyway. It's much cheaper to hire a private army. And the 1% will always be able to hire some assholes to do the dirty work for them.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Ned Ludd is dead

          But even assholes can be convinced to defect. If not an appeal to better sense, then perhaps blackmail or threats to things they hold dear (and even assholes will hold SOME things dear).

          Machines are a lot more difficult to turn around, especially if they're restricted in methods of input.

      3. breakfast

        Re: Ned Ludd is dead

        I think this is by far the most plausible starting point for a war between humans and machines - once everyone else is out of work and they start to get a bit tetchy the 1% or the 0.001% or whoever it is now owns all the resources just turns the war mahines on the rest of us.

        Hopefully the Pew institute is going to be preparing us for this by designing anti-robot weaponry, allowing them to become the "Pew pew pew" institute the moment the trouble kicks off.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not sure what to make of this..

    My career has never been at risk due to automation, but then I tend to stay at the fore of IT, its an industry requirement - Surely this is just the same happening in other industries?

    Fail to evolve, you become a relic.

    This may be unfair, especially if you work in an industry where skills requirements are static, but then life is unfair. Rather than complaining, jump a head of the curve and reap the benefits.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Not sure what to make of this..

      You assume anyone can just jump ahead of the curve. What do you tell the people who simply can't jump? "Tough luck, game over, better luck next life."?

      1. Marketing Hack Silver badge

        Re: Not sure what to make of this..

        Also, people who jump ahead of the curve reap the benefits because there is a scarcity of people who jump ahead of the curve. What happens when genuine masses of people try to get work in robotics programming or maintenance, because taking care of the growing number of robots is obviously where the future is at and traditional employment is a thing of the past.

        The result could be that the rewards of being "ahead of the curve" are much smaller than they have been in the past, and that capital pulls down a share of the economy not seen since medieval times.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't care...

    As long as there are enough people or robots in employment that pay taxes so that I can draw my pension.

    Well, if I was totally selfish that would be what I'd say.

    We will have a problem with mass unemployment. The Labour party thinks that 4.something% unemployed is 'mass unemployment' then they ain't seen anything yet. With our economy going to hit the buffers thanks to the deal that the EU will impose on us (£100B fine), there could be a major social uprising.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is pretty much the basis of LitRPG.

    It's the realization

    #1 that space travel for the masses (traditional sci-fi) isn't going to happen.

    #2 the vast majority of people of the future won't need to work (elimination of service jobs).

    #3 the human condition requires accomplishments to give life meaning (for mental health).

    The result is the creation of virtual worlds, where there are worlds to explore, new things to create, and where people can be whatever they want. It's the struggle that gives life meaning...

    1. trashsilo


      Its 11 on inequality, the rich will get to buy amplified AI.

      Us crazy fools will be told nothing and left to IT.

  9. Stork Silver badge

    And what do we tell our kids to do?

    Seriously? At the moment it looks like the jobs most shielded from automatisation are in care work, especially for the growing number of old people.

    Does it matter? If everybody is being paid anyway, they may as well just choose out of interest. My oldest son is off for uni in just over a year and will probably do engineering (he likes physics and math). Now, for the pure enjoyment this is fine, but also here in PT I think it would be better for jobs prospects to do plumbing - it is almost impossible to get a good plumber and I think it is difficult to teach robots.

    I am now in tourism and as long as there are guests travelling and no riots here I do not see the end of it - I am happy when I have 1/2 day off in the season.

  10. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    And it gets worse

    A report says that 46% of Scottish jobs are at risk due to automation.

    IMHO, the percentages in the rest of the country might even be higher.

  11. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Just a note. This is a SURVEY of ATTITUDES.

    IE It's what people think will happen.

    Now what would be more interesting is how what people think will happen matches with actual evidence of what is happening.

    Which might be more optimistic.

    Or not.

  12. Lars Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    All you need is a hammer

    I find this video quite fun, perhaps one should spend a few days doing that after every two months behind the keyboard.

    And then there is the more modern version.

  13. Chris G Silver badge

    We are looking at it all wrong

    I t may not be a question of finding jobs for all the displaced workers it might be that infowars has it right


    I doubt if I will still be here to see it but maybe the conspiracists are not full of crap after all!

    500 million butlers and gardeners for the dynasties of the New World Order Elite?

  14. Jerry G.

    This article has many valid points. With aggressive advancements in AI robotic systems will be able to learn skills from people and each other, teach what they have learned and do direct information sharing with other robots, reproduce themselves, and service each other. In a very advanced AI environment (world), there will be no need for human interaction. The robots will end up being a self surviving entity as like a new race.

    This may all sound very much science fiction, but in reality think not! Most of what we are seeing today was pure science fiction just a few decades ago. Back in the 1960's when advanced computer systems were starting to show their presence these were an impressive advancement from what was in existence in the 1950's. The rate of advancement is exponential. Moor's Law which dictates the advancing rate of information being doubled.

    The next century can either be awesome, or our worse nightmare coming!

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      "This may all sound very much science fiction, but in reality think not! Most of what we are seeing today was pure science fiction just a few decades ago. Back in the 1960's when advanced computer systems were starting to show their presence these were an impressive advancement from what was in existence in the 1950's. The rate of advancement is exponential. Moor's Law which dictates the advancing rate of information being doubled."

      Thing is, Sci-Fi can still MISS. We still haven't cracked the FTL problem, meaning we can't leave this dustball yet, plus Moore's Law is showing cracks as we reach the physical limits of the electron. And where's my cheap flying car, ubiquitous energy, and food synthesizer?

  15. boatsman

    finally we dont need to work 40 a week anymore.... if we can get rid of the

    greedy couple of 3 or 4 -thousand billionaires who are hellbent on dominating the human race in it's entirety.....

  16. Rol Silver badge

    Humanity Optional

    If we look at our current economic model, we can see that many millions are employed to meet the desires of the few.

    That those many millions are rewarded sufficiently to also have their desires met is only a passing phase, as AI will replace a large majority of them, just as engines replaced millions of horses, containers replaced millions of dockers, and deodorant replaced soap.

    When you have land, capital, and an AI workforce, do you really need the hard work of enterprise too?

    Your AI bots using the resources you have coveted can conjure up your hearts desire. Why go to all the bother of trading, you already have all you need and may ever want.

    Well, I'm saying you, but odds are, you, like me, will be displaced.

    In the short term, the poor unfortunates will have a very short career in the Soylent Green factory and a population equilibrium will be established.

    Then again, we could send those bots out to mine the shit out of the Solar system and manage to fully resource every citizen on the planet, but that's socialism, and where's the fun, when sadistic capitalism is off the menu.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Humanity Optional

      Even if the robot builders sent out robots to mine out the Solar System (starting with the asteroid belt, probably), they still wouldn't give. Why give out everything when you can use a bit to safeguard the rest against the proles? Like you, I feel there will come a point when the have-everythings will simply close off the walled garden, abandon the rest of us, and hash it out amongst themselves instead.

    2. Stork Silver badge

      Re: Humanity Optional

      well, perhaps - but what is the fun of being rich if there is not someone to be richer than?

      Honestly, that seems to drive a lot of wealthy people and research has showed relative wealth to be more important than absolute for feel-good.

  17. strum

    I wonder what the reaction will be when someone invents the CEObot. Most exec roles could probably be AI-ed out of existence.

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