Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Robots, AI-Based Systems Set To Displace Financial Workers - And Others

"I am Roberta 2.0 and I am here to take your job!"

According to a recent WSJ  report ('Firms Leave The Bean Counting To The Robots') in the Business and Investing section (p, B5, Oct. 23) AI -based robots will soon be taking over CFO and accounting work across the land. That will essentially displace all those humans currently holding such jobs and likely pulling down big bucks in salary.  Thus we read in the article:

"One of Statoil ASA's newest employees, Roberta, spends her days in the energy firm's treasury department searching for missing payment information and sending out reminders.  Her boss, Tor Stian Kjoolesdal, said  Roberta's heavy orkload would improve overall efficiency in the group."

We then learn "Roberta doesn't have a last name, a face or arms. She is the first piece of robotic software to work in the Norwegian company's treasury department - part of Statoil's push to automation, robotics and artificial intelligence."

Is this a one off electronic freak so bean counters in other countries don't need to worry/ Think again!. The piece goes on to note that finance execs at Nokia Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and Orange SA are developing their own Robertas. Also:

"Two thirds of large global companies  expect to automate some or all of their finance department tasks over the next two or three years, according to new research by Hackett Group Inc. Hacket's report is based on benchmark and performance studies at hundreds of  large global companies."

WHY is this happening, and especially now as there is seeming state and federal pressure for corporations to create new jobs,  not destroy existing ones?  The reason offered in the WSJ piece is straightforward direct:

"The new technologies are designed to cut costs, liberate workers from time consuming repetitive tasks and - in many cases - reduce finance and treasury department employee numbers."

Ahhh, so we finally get to the real reason!  But then this stuff isn't rocket science. It's been known since the mid 1990s that corporations find human employees more to be drains on their profits than useful contributions.  Benefits alone clip the profit margins especially for providing any health care, or even sick days. Given these monetary limitations - and the fact humans get sick and machines don't  - who wouldn't want to ditch all the bio-based flesh and blood workers for machines and software.?

Jim Hightower provides more insights in his recent column:

"With corporations socking away massive profits and the labor market still tight why are worker's wages stuck at miserly levels? One big reason is that corporate boards and CEOs have their heads stuck in a dreamy future. Nearly every economic sector is spending vast sums of money on workers p just not on human workers.

While few Americans are aware of it, bosses are investing in hordes of sophisticated autonomous robots powered by a cognitive technology called artificial intelligence. Instead of paying a decent wage to you, corporations are buying millions of these cheap, human-esque thinking machines in order to take a shocking number of jobs away - well, from you!"

Scare mongering? Not quite.

Playing right into Hightower's hands, we learn from the WSJ piece that Finance departments are seeing results from the increased sophistication of robotics and automation tools leading Finland's Nokia to expect to :shed more jobs as part of the transition to more automated finance departments"

Of course, the spin conveyed in the article is that the reason so many AI -based robots are replacing humans is because:

"It doesn't make sense to pay a human to do that:"  - in the immortal words of Guillaume Texier, of Compagnie de Saint-Gobain SA, quoted in the article.

We also learn the displaced employees will be "expected to do higher level work".

In a pig's eye. In fact, it will merely be a matter of time before that 'higher level" work is taken over by Ai-robots using quantum computing technology.   And as Hightower points out, already the jobs of "accountants, bank loan officers, and insurance claims adjustors are "falling to the bots"

Why? Because they can calculate more rapidly and more accurately than humans. What about "journalism"? Well, the associated press already uses an AI program to "write thousands of financial articles and sports reports".  Meanwhile, FORBES uses an AI system called  'Quill" to pen its articles.

The same applies to the realm of manual labor, and Hightower cites the example of "SAM" a robotic bricklayer that "lays three times as many bricks in a day as a human can". Hence, it has the potential to displace three times the number of human workers.

Hightower again sizes things up with crystal clarity:

"It's not robots that are taking our jobs, but corporate profiteers. They're creating a robot economy in order to displace you and me with inexpensive machines that don't demand higher wages or health care, don't take sick days or vacations and don't organize unions, file lawsuits or vote for pro-worker politicians. It's to be a plutocratic utopia designed by and for the corporate elite "

His words ought to sound resonant chords in any sentient worker. Of course corporations are out to maximize their profits, why else plump for corporate tax cuts despite the fact that few corporations actually pay the 35 percent rate?  Why else would corporations and CEOs prefer AI and robots if not to eliminate the onerous headaches of wages, benefits etc.?

Where is all this going? Or, to put it more exactly: How are the millions of soon to be displaced workers supposed to support themselves and families if there aren't enough jobs to enable them to even put food on the table, far less a roof over their heads?

One of several myths circulating is there are ample jobs to go around if people just look for them, but the fact is there aren't.  A huge "job pyramid" is the abiding reality with only a few (mainly techie) jobs at the top but a vast base of underpaid work below and much of that being swallowed by automation.

Another odious myth is that workers are "unwilling to move to take jobs."   But that canard's been nipped in the bud because automation and AI systems are ubiquitous - so merely moving to another locale doesn't ensure AI-based systems aren't already there subsuming every job from bean counter to staff writer to brick layer.

Even those with advanced college degrees aren't assured of "mind jobs" that can keep body and soul together.   The associate professor at university level is becoming a  thing of the past. The percentage of teaching positions occupied by non-tenure-track faculty has more than tripled in the past four decades. According to the Adjunct Project, “Two-thirds of the faculty standing in front of college classrooms each day aren’t full-time or permanent professors.” 

"Limited displacement" you say. Hardly! As Hightower notes:

"Also, the jobs of librarians, pharmacists, lawyers, air traffic controllers, doctors, teachers, hospital administrators, bartenders — and so many more — are targeted for massive displacement."

Welcome to the brave new world of robot and AI workers that will dominate the labor landscape for the next two decades or more. Are there any jobs men especially can grab where they can feel safe not being displaced? According to one Kiplinger's article I read recently, the safest field is Nursing - which has seen a 40 percent increase in males. The problem is not all men are cut out to be caretakers, or nurses.

This again presents the problem of how both men and women are to survive in a world where automaton labor dominates.  The only answer I  can see is providing every citizen with a universal basic income. Yes, it will cost - big taxpayer bucks from those who are fortunate to have jobs. But it will be infinitely preferable to the alternative.

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