Watch out, the future is coming!

The Knesset held a debate on the impact of robotics on the labor market. Is Israel ready?

MK MANUEL TRACHTENBERG (right) and MK Aliza Lavie pose recently with futurologist Dr. Roey Tzezana, speaking from the US via a telepresence robot (photo credit: KNESSET)
MK MANUEL TRACHTENBERG (right) and MK Aliza Lavie pose recently with futurologist Dr. Roey Tzezana, speaking from the US via a telepresence robot
(photo credit: KNESSET)
Robots have become all the rage. All of a sudden everyone is talking about them. The World Economic Forum (WEF) discussed them along with 3D printing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and other elements of the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution at its annual confab in Davos last month. Even the Knesset Science and Technology Committee held a debate last week on the impact they could have on the labor market.
The Knesset debate was addressed by a robot or, to be more precise, by Dr. Roey Tzezana, a futurologist and author of the bestselling Guide to the Future, who was speaking through a video link via a telepresence robot.
It was a light-hearted affair, with MKs lining up to have their picture taken with the “Tzezanabot,” but the issue is no laughing matter. Around 40 percent of the jobs that exist today are expected to disappear within the next 20 years.
So what kind of impact will this have on society and what needs to be done to prepare for the brave new world that is knocking at our doorstep? As the WEF puts it: “While the impending change holds great promise, the patterns of consumption, production and employment created by it also pose major challenges requiring proactive adaptation by corporations, governments and individuals.
“Concurrent to the technological revolution are a set of broader socioeconomic, geopolitical and demographic drivers of change, each interacting in multiple directions and intensifying one another.
As entire industries adjust, most occupations are undergoing a fundamental transformation.
“While some jobs are threatened by redundancy and others grow rapidly, existing jobs are also going through a change in the skill sets required to do them. The debate on these transformations is often polarized between those who foresee limitless new opportunities and those that foresee massive dislocation of jobs. In fact, the reality is highly specific to the industry, region and occupation in question as well as the ability of various stakeholders to manage change.”
That’s a long way of saying that with foresight, developed societies, should be able to successfully modify and adapt, to create new jobs and new economic models, while Third World societies and groups that fail to adapt will slip further behind.
A debate on the nature of future societies, on whether the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be benevolent or simply lead to a further widening of the gap between haves and have nots to medieval proportions is beyond the scope of this column, but economists and futurologists agree on one thing: low-skilled jobs are on the way out.
“Every profession with a low-level skills set that can be replaced by a machine will lead to worsening labor conditions and require less and less workers,” Tzezana tells me.
But not only low-skilled jobs are under threat: More and more jobs will become susceptible to artificial intelligence over time. A recent Taub Center report found that around one million Israelis could lose their jobs to automation in the next 20 years, with 39 percent of the labor force in the 25-64 age bracket defined as being at high risk. In the Arab sector that figure rises to 57 percent.
The question is can those jobs be replaced? Israel, to paraphrase JFK, probably has the talent to invent machines that put men out of work and the talent to put them back to work.
The Knesset committee heard from the head of the Israeli Robotics Association, Zvi Shiller, that Israel is a world leader in the field and that it has the technological infrastructure and manpower to become a global hub and to create more jobs than those that will be lost.
Things might not work out so quickly and so smoothly. Israel will need to be at the forefront of developing and commercializing automation technologies, but it will also need to have the foresight to “think about producing jobs of value for people who are not in hi-tech and to think about the ways in which we implement technology...
so that everyone can live well and thrive in a technological society,” says Dr.
Noah Efron of Bar-Ilan University’s Science, Technology and Society program.
Efron warns that the vector of automation technology is toward increasing the gaps in wealth, power and influence.
But, he says, we can change that vector if we begin to have a grand democratic discussion about technologies: how we are going to adopt them, how we are going to treat the people who find that the lives they live are rendered no longer possible and how we are going to use technologies to create a world in which can all thrive, rather than a world in which some of us feel lost and left out.
Otherwise, we might find ourselves facing social chaos, with the mob baying at the gates with pitchforks.
Is Israel up to the challenge? Tzezana says he fears policy makers will wait until things become difficult before they act to create change, but that what really worries him is that government will lack the fluidity to balance between societal demands and responsible decision making.
As for the overall picture, he says he is cautiously optimistic: “I can see positive and negative trends and we will face major challenges, but we have faced similar challenges over the past two centuries and in the end humanity has emerged better off. So in the short term I am a pessimist, but in the long term I am an optimist.”