Automation, Robots and The Pink Collar Future

Editor’s note: Last night I participated in “I am Robot. Hear me roar,” an online discussion hosted by HuffPost Live and using Google+ Hangouts to support several people connected via webcam. The discussion questioned how automation can make human workers obsolete. Will robots make your own job as a caretaker obsolete? I was asked to participate because of my interest in tech futures that include Healthcare Robots. Jamais Cascio also participated and offered some quite interesting insights. He shared the following article with the audience and gave me permission to republish it here.

Different perspectives: Following the article are two videos.
First is a PBS report that looks at robots and automation as replacing human workers. It’s what many Democrats worry about, and many unemployed workers complain about.
Second is a heart-warming movie trailer from Robot and Frank, which opens in theaters this month and gives a rosier view of technology that’s more like a friendly assistant than a job killer. This optimistic view is similar to the picture Republicans paint, but with no worry about those left behind and unemployed.
So which is it? Just as futurists consider different scenarios and what may lead to their preferred version of the future, you too can decide which version you like and either help make it happen for yourself, or prevent it from happening to others. As you think about this, realize that technology won’t slow down, but its impact on society can be controlled with smart policy decisions. Add your own perspectives below.

Robot Images

The Pink Collar Future

By Jamais Cascio, futurist, writer, speaker and founder of Open The Future

The claim that robots are taking our jobs has become so commonplace of late that it’s a bit of a cliché. Nonetheless, it has a strong element of truth to it. Not only are machines taking “blue collar” factory jobs — a process that’s been underway for years, and no longer much of a surprise except when a company like Foxconn announces it’s going to bring in a million robots (which are less likely to commit suicide, apparently) — but now mechanized/digital systems are quickly working their way up the employment value chain. “Grey collar” service workers have been under pressure for awhile, especially those jobs (like travel agent) that involve pattern-matching; now jobs involving the composition of structured reports (such as basic journalism) have digital competition, and Google’s self-driving car portends a future of driverless taxicabs. But even “white collar” jobs, managerial and supervisory in particular, are being threatened — in part due to replacement, and in part due to declining necessity. After all, if the line workers have been replaced by machines, there’s little need for direct human oversight of the kind required by human workers, no? Stories of digital lawyers and surgeons simply accelerate the perception that robots really are taking over the workplace, and online education systems like the Khan Academy demonstrate how readily university-level learning can be conducted without direct human contact.

With advanced 3D printers and more adaptive robotic and computer systems on the near horizon, it’s easy to see that this trend will only continue.

Except for one arena, that is, and it’s a pretty interesting one. Jobs where empathy and “emotional intelligence” can be considered requirements, often personal service and “high touch” interactive positions, have by and large been immune to the creeping mechanization of the workplace. And here’s the twist: most of these empathy-driven jobs are performed by women.

Nursing, primary school teaching, personal grooming — these jobs require varying levels of education and knowledge, but all have a strong caretaker component, and demand the ability to understand the unspoken or non-obvious needs of patients/students/clients/etc. We’re years — perhaps even decades — away from a machine system that can effectively take on these roles; a computer able to demonstrate sufficient empathy to take care of a crying kindergartener is clearly approaching True AI status. As a result, we appear to be heading into a future where these “pink collar” jobs — empathy-driven, largely performed by women — are the most significant set of careers without any real machine substitute, and therefore without the downward wage pressure that mechanization usually produces.

This raises some big questions, of course, and not the least of which is how this will affect the social and economic status of these professions. Nurses may be more valued than surgeons; kindergarten teachers paid better than university professors. Would this lead to a shift in the gender composition of these jobs? In a culture that remains beholden to the concept that men are the “breadwinners,” might we see efforts to “masculinize” these roles? Recall that in the United States after World War II, there was a great deal of pressure on women to give up the “Rosie the Riveter”-type jobs they held during the war.

Conversely, if accelerating mechanization of jobs triggers the emergence of large-scale social support systems (like the Basic Income Guarantee) paid for by “robot taxes,” does this mean that outside-the-home jobs are largely performed by women, while men stay at home?

What I’m saying is this: there is a terrible habit that many of us in the futures game seem to have of generalizing potential disruptions. That is, if robots are taking our jobs, then they’re taking all of our jobs (except, ideally, for the jobs of futurists) and we start thinking through the implications from there. But disruptions aren’t so easily flattened; when Gibson said that the future’s here, it’s just not evenly distributed, he wasn’t just talking about geography, or even class. Big sociotechnoeconomic shifts don’t just appear and redraw the landscape, they have to adapt to the existing conditions, and will themselves be disrupted by deeply-rooted cultural forces. We also have a habit of expecting that the most well-off financially are the most likely to resist big changes — but what happens when the underlying notions of value themselves are changing?

About the Author

Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of their Top 100 Global Thinkers, Jamais Cascio writes about the intersection of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation, specializing in the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future. His work focuses on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking, emphasizing the power of openness, transparency and flexibility as catalysts for building a more resilient society. He also speaks about future possibilities around the world, and i 2006 he started Open The Future.

PBS Report

PBS Report: Is Automation Replacing Human Workers?

Movie Trailer

Robot and Frank

5 thoughts on “Automation, Robots and The Pink Collar Future

  1. Robots are not the immediate issue.  However, automation using computers, hand held devices is.  The combination of algorithms, voice technology, and storage capacity advances allows 50% of the white collar jobs to be automated with today’s technology.  They will be in the next 10 years and the technology will get much better.  

    While we’ve had shifts like this in the past, nothing so fast and dramatic as this.

    While the soothsayers claim there will be new jobs created, not a one can tell me what they might be or that they can be created anywhere as fast as people will be displaced.

    So what are the social implications of this??

    1. Thanks for visiting Modern Health Talk and commenting on the article on robots and automation replacing jobs faster than creating new ones. You’re right – there will be immense social issues, starting with education and skills development. Even with the Kahn Academy and universities like MIT posting course materials online, I feel they are completely missing the opportunity, and the rising costs of getting an accredited degree is a problem. We need to rethink the value of the degree entirely and find new ways for employers to gauge how qualified job candidates are. Looking forward, I envision a whole new set of qualifications that employers should be looking for, starting with soft skills like imagination, personal networking, empathy, etc.

      From a resulting email exchange with John…

      I’m with you, John. The Industrial Age brought workers into cities or company towns to work in factories as almost slave labor until collective bargaining through unions. The investor class learned from that and is now at work destroying unions through state legislatures. The widening income, wealth and opportunity gaps are not sustainable.

      Companies would normally notice this decline of the middle class as a decline of their custom base, as Henry Ford did when he decided to pay his factory workers a competitive wage so they could earn enough to buy the cars they made. But today the trend is from consolidation into huge multinationals with enough political influence to distort the playing field for competitive advantage and drive smaller players out of business. They don’t much care about the U.S. middle class if they can sell globally into emerging markets for decades to come.

      The OECD forecasts economic growth globally and shows US share of GDP dwindling, compared to that of China, India and other non-OECD countries. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Look at what South Korea was able to do in just two decades by (1) deciding that it wanted to be a world leader in certain industries and (2) developing a strategy to get there that included investments in STEM education and broadband infrastructures. Today South Korea is ranked #1 in the speed, affordability and adoption of broadband, while the US has fallen from #1 to #27. See for a good video and charts.

  2. Other related articles:
    What will happen when the internet of things becomes artificially intelligent? (Thought provoking)
    What advances in Robotics and A.I. bode for us (CBS)
    Artificial Inquisition (Huffington Post)
    Welcome to the Dawn of the Age of Robots (Huffington Post, I commented)
    The (More) Real Threat Posed by Powerful Computers (New York Times)
    Robot Passes Self-Awareness Test (RoboticsTrends)
    What you need to know about artificial intelligence, and the imminent robot future (CNET)
    Next wave of smarter, faster robots coming for many of our jobs (includes chart showing which jobs disappear first)
    Will machines eventually take on every job, including in healthcare? (BBC)
    Robots Might Take Your Job, But Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Worry (FastCompany, I commented)
    Not Just Another Discussion About Whether AI Is Going To Destroy Us (TechCrunch, I commented)
    Self-driving vehicles and robotic clerks could take your job in 20 years (engadget, I commented)
    10 skills that are hard to learn but pay off forever (World Economic Forum, I commented)
    18 artificial intelligence researchers reveal the profound changes coming to our lives (TechInsider, I commented on Pink collar work)
    Robot revolution: rise of ‘thinking’ machines could exacerbate inequality (The Guardian, I commented)
    Education is not an adequate defense against the rise of the robots (LinkedIn, I commented)
    In pursuit of empathetic machines (TechCrunch)
    What If Artificial Intelligence Was Enlightened?
    Why Learning to Code Won’t Save Your Job (FastCompany)
    Will Robots Save the Future of Work? (TechCrunch, I commented)

    COMMENT: Assigned Tasks or Assumed Tasks — The shift away from task-specific, rules-based programming of robots, to neural networks and AI and learning, will change everything, because it’s not just about automating repetitive and mundane tasks.

    Enabled by Moore’s Law and the exponentially accelerating pace of tech innovation, robots are beginning to learn, recognize problems and opportunities for improvement on their own, and learn from the past mistakes of others around the world. Soon they’ll thirst for more knowledge, access resources like Wikipedia and YouTube, and even summon advice and assistance from other robots.

    As fixed-function robots become more flexible, they’ll be able to “assume” tasks autonomously when they can do a better job than humans. They’ll even start assuming human-like traits like creativity, trial & error curiosity, and empathy (or not). That’s where the important field of machine ethics comes in.

    As you can see in my article (, some work is easier to automate than other work, but who knows what centuries of machine evolution will bring since it’s evolving much, much faster than human evolution.

    Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs (WIRED)

    COMMENT: To help speed the transition from agriculture to manufacturing, and to accommodate displaced farm workers, government offered free education through high school. Then to help people prepare for the information age and serve the needs of business, government offered public universities and community colleges with low tuition. But now that’s not nearly enough, and we need affordable lifetime education offerings and social programs, knowing that jobs and careers don’t last as long and people need ways to develop new skills as automation obsoletes 70% of today’s work.

    Just as in the past, the role of government must change to prepare for a vibrant future, and that’s just as important for the 0.1% as for the average worker, because (1) they need a healthy, skilled and productive workforce; and (2) without a strong middle class, demand for goods & services is limited.

    This is just some of the justification for a much more progressive taxing system to help fund public investments in education, research, healthcare, and infrastructure. As in the past, the biggest beneficiaries of these public investments are the wealthiest individuals and companies.

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