Emerging Issues: How can NC deal with threat of jobless future?

Published February 8, 2016

by Rick Smith, WRAL TechWire, February 8, 2016.

Is a jobless future coming for North Carolina? Nearly half of the state's jobs are at risk if state and industry leaders don't take steps now to deal with the coming tsunami of disruption, says a new study.

As robotics, artificial intelligence and technology continue to evolve at a rapid rate, North Carolina faces a staggering 50 percent loss of jobs in the coming decades, according to the NCSU forecast. These aren't just traditional manufacturing jobs but also so-called knowledge workers: Programmers and others whose tasks might someday soon be done by computers that can think on their own through cognitive computing and artificial intelligence.

Here's an example: Automated Insights, a Durham company whose name plays off AI or artificial intelligence, has developed programming to produce news stories and much more by computers. The Associated Press, which is one of the world's biggest news providers, is an investor and utilizes Automated Insights stories.

How can the state prevent such a jobs debacle is the topic of a major forum drawing hundreds of people to Raleigh today and Tuesday. Technology thought leaders, politicians and educators are gathering for "Future Work" as put on by the Institute for Emerging Issues, or IEI. It's the 31st annual event put on by the Institute, which is based at NCSU and focuses on challenges facing North Carolina's future.

Robbie Allen, the founder of Automated Insights, is among the forum speakers.

Leading off the program is best-selling author Martin Ford, who helped bring the robotic threat to jobs into focus with his best-selling book "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future."

His topic: "Essential issue: How is automation eliminating jobs in every sector—even yours?"

North Carolina is not alone in facing such a economic threat. The United States facing a similar loss in jobs, and worldwide futurists such as Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Duke, author and former technology entrepreneur in the Triangle who is among the forum's speaker, have issued dire warnings.

"Policy makers will have a big new problem to deal with: the disappearance of human jobs. Not only will there be fewer jobs for people doing manual work, the jobs of knowledge workers will also be replaced by computers," Wadhwa wrote recently in The Washington Post. "Almost every industry and profession will be impacted and this will create a new set of social problems — because most people can’t adapt to such dramatic change."

For workers in the near future, young people just beginning to think about careers and children yet to come, perhaps no bigger threat to future employment comes through the increasing use of robotics, the spread of automation and these ever-smarter, faster computers. What has been termed "the jobless future" is not hype but fact as documented by a recent NCSU study conducted by economist Dr. Michael Walden.

The IEI sees the threat as so dire that it has created a "Future Work Disruption Index" which breaks down the job threat by various categories, by each of the state's 100 counties, and much more. The Index says some 700,000 of 1 million jobs in 39 employment categories could be erased within a generation. And hundreds of thousands of jobs might be lost in other categories, putting much of the state's 3.5-4 million work force in jeopardy.

"The numbers I estimated showed NC potentially losing around 50 percent of its employment - near the same as for the nation," Walden said in an interview. "The reason is that technological unemployment will extent well beyond manufacturing and impact many professional as well as service jobs."

Posing yet an additional threat is "tech-enabled off-shoring," which would hit another 1 million jobs, according to the Disruption Index summary. However, the full extent of the problem is still being studied and data about that subject area is not included in the index.

Walden is also among the IEI speakers., sharing the stage with Ford.

The continuing technology boom, which is delivering people ever-smarter and more capable phones to Internet-linked refrigerators (the Internet of Things, as its called), is also a source of hope, however.

"With the technology boom in progress, there is a lot to be optimistic about," Wadhwa wrote. "Manufacturing will be returning to U.S. shores with robots doing the job of Chinese workers;American car makers will be mass-producing self-driving electric vehicles; technology companies will develop medical devices that greatly improve health and longevity; we will have unlimited clean energy and 3D-print our daily needs. The cost of all of these things will plummet and make it possible to provide for the basic needs of every human being."

Yet Wadhwa also noted that leaders face a tremendous challenge:

"If we can develop the economic structures necessary to distribute the prosperity we are creating, most people will no longer have to work to sustain themselves. They will be free to pursue other creative endeavors. The problem, however, is that without jobs, they will not have the dignity, social engagement, and sense of fulfillment that comes from work. The life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that the constitution entitles us to won’t be through labor, it will have to be through other means.

"It is imperative that we understand the changes that are happening and find ways to cushion the impacts."

For more about the forum, which will be televised over some UNC-TV stations, see:


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February 8, 2016 at 11:15 am
Richard L Bunce says:

Likely true and what we do not need is government restrictions on business conversion to automation. Government focus should be on social impact and reduce taxes and regulations on it's citizens so they can startup their own businesses providing products and services in a way that automation cannot. For instance I can by machine made hat at Walmart conveniently at a great price. I can also buy custom handmade hat from many places in the world on Etsy. There is a place for all of it, no government regulation required.