We have all heard the dire predictions about robots coming to steal our jobs . Some would even have us believe these silicon bogeymen are coming to kill us . It plays straight into people’s darkest fears about technology.

SwissCognitiveWhen futurists talk about things that haven’t happened yet, they are free to parade educated guesses as fact. But before we take their word for it, we might remember the old adage : “… in God we trust, all others bring data”. In a recent article, the MIT Technology Review tabulated the results of “every study we could find on what automation will do to jobs”. The results show that the expected impacts depend on what you measure.

Many predictions, little agreement

Of the 19 reports considered in the review, there was enormous variation. Some predicted that a few million jobs would be replaced, while others spoke portentously of tens or hundreds of millions over similar time frames. Some were decidedly upbeat, others quite gloomy.

One futurist went so far as to forecast that a billion jobs will be lost to automation by 2022. Contrast this with the more sober prediction from the research and advisory group Gartner of 1.8 million jobs lost by 2020, but with 2.3 million created in the same period – a net increase of 500,000 over the next two years.

Why such a big difference? In truth, no one knows how many jobs will be lost and found in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The situation is too complex for simple answers. Variations in predictions can be likened to the parable of the five blind men encountering an elephant. By touching different parts of the elephant’s body, each came to a different conclusion as to what the beast is.

Technology anxiety is nothing new

Worries about the impact of technology on society have a long history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the rapid expansion of disruptive technologies during the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the same anxieties as those being expressed today.

Trades were automated to produce greater economies of scale, but job losses were more than offset by the new jobs subsequently created. Meanwhile, trades like pottery, weaving and metalwork that were “lost” to automation 200 years ago are still being done by skilled craftspeople today.

More recently, when personal computers found their way onto people’s desks in the 1980s, the typing pool became redundant. I recall the lamentations then of the newspapers, TV and talkback radio.

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But in time, the overall number of jobs went up because of the new jobs created in the fledgling IT industry. Today there are dozens of technology job categories, none of which existed in the typing pool days – jobs in computer hardware, programming, content production, web design, security, big data, sales and marketing, and artificial intelligence to name a few. […]