Imagine a world in which new careers and those that are unheard of today, exist, and those careers that exist today are no longer available. A world where robots have complete control of certain occupations, and where humans have the opportunity to implant knowledge into their brains through the use of technological advancements.

On Monday evening, Dr. Kevin LaGrandeur, a professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology, addressed these possibilities to a crowd of about 100 students, faculty and community members as part of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Lecture Series.  

LaGrandeur, along with James J. Hughes, wrote “Surviving the Machine Age: Intelligent Technology and the Transformation of Human Work,” a book describing how an increase in technology may influence employment in future years. These spurts of technology advancement are not new to society, LaGrandeur explained. In the 1960s, the automobile industry underwent a change in which industrial robots began displacing workers.

“Now this process is affecting jobs in a much broader way, not just in the working classes, but even in the middle and upper-middle classes,” LaGrandeur said. “This process in technological displacement is accelerating.”

Among the most notable of displacements include a farm in Japan completely managed by robots, an Australian robot with the capability of laying bricks at about 20 times faster than a human in the construction industry, bionic bartenders on several Royal Caribbean cruise ships and a restaurant in Japan capable of quickly making ramen dishes for customers.

LaGrandeur continued by showing audience members a chart displaying the probabilities of robots taking over certain careers in the next 20 years. The four careers with the highest probabilities included telemarketers, with a 99 percent chance of being replaced, accountant and auditors at 94 percent, retail salesperson with 92 percent and technical writers at 89 percent. He also described the more recent virtual reality real estate tours, in which prospective buyers can look through 3D glasses at real estate, even at buildings that do not yet exist.

One of the main causes of these transformations, LaGrandeur explained, involves humans’ inability to work as quickly or as cheaply as robots. A sort of repeat of the events of the Gilded Age, those with low wage jobs are at the highest risk.

“In terms of sheer productivity, humans can’t keep up with computers and robots, and even when they can, all things being equal, machines and digital implements are often more convenient and cheaper,” he said.

Although long-term issues do arise, LaGrandeur stated the short-term concerns facing the human workforce will require the most attention. Potential solutions featured in “Surviving the Machine Age” include a better education on jobs robots cannot complete, shortening the workweek to 30 hours, having a basic income guarantee, instituting micro-fees to compensate for micro-incomes, implementing a tax for businesses that make use of robots and developing technology for the economically disadvantaged.

Casey Pierce, an assistant professor in the School of Information, commentated on the event and explained her thoughts of the issue specifically in terms of health care. She described the possibility of replacing in-office eye exams with those taken on a smartphone, and the effects these exams might have on patients.

“I asked my optometrist last week his thoughts on this, kind of knowing what his response was going to be, and he told me it was the most ridiculous thing that I could ever think about doing when I really just needed to get a new prescription for a new box of contacts,” she said.

She also discussed her own work in regard to new technological advancements, and questioned those that could replace tasks she has such as grading papers.

“What does my occupation as a professor mean when I’m delegating some of my work to technology?” she asked.

Yu-Ming Chen, a master’s student in the College of Engineering, attended the talk as part of Michigan Robotics to learn more about the issue from a public policy aspect.

“Everybody’s not sure about what the future is going to be,” he said. “I’m surprised that there’s some technology that can implant knowledge into your brain and you can learn it very quickly.”

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