Will robots knock out Israel’s best jobs?

Computers will replace 41% of Israel’s workers within 20 years, Taub Center report says. What is the government doing to prepare?

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Boxing robots in action at the Israel RoboCup championship (Courtesy)
Boxing robots in action at the Israel RoboCup championship (Courtesy)

Let’s say you’re a young person without much family money and you aspire to a middle-class existence. Here are some of the career choices you should avoid: accountant, bus driver, architect, real-estate agent and bank manager.

You heard right. Close to half of all jobs that exist today in the developed world will be performed by computers and robots in the next two decades, according to a watershed 2013 paper by Oxford University economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne. Now, the Taub Center for Social Policy Research in Jerusalem has applied Frey and Osborne’s methodology to the Israeli job market.

It is small comfort to learn that in Israel only 41 percent (as opposed to 47% in the United States and 54% in Europe) of jobs are at high risk of disappearing in the next decade or two, according to Shavit Madhala-Brik, who authored the paper.

Still, Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie agrees that 41% is a shocking number and worries the Israeli government isn’t doing enough to prepare for the coming waves of unemployment. For the past year, she has made this her number-one issue in the Knesset.

An industrial robot at work (Pixabay)
An industrial robot at work (Pixabay)

“We’re not addressing this and we don’t understand that the world is about to change,” Lavie said. “The Knesset and government are aware of the issue but I don’t see anything being implemented yet. I hope Avi Simhon [Netanyahu’s newly appointed senior economic advisor] will take an interest.

‘We don’t understand that the world is about to change’

To that end, Lavie has organized a Knesset day devoted to employment of the future on February 2. The Education Committee will discuss how to adapt school and university curricula, another committee will discuss turning the Galilee into an economic engine, while others discuss how to prepare Haredim and Arabs, who are projected to constitute a majority of working age Israelis by 2050, for this new job market.

The reason why jobs are disappearing is due to advances in what is known as artificial intelligence. Just as a computer can beat the best human at chess, algorithms can now drive cars, do your taxes and even diagnose cancer more successfully and with fewer errors than humans. Even though Internet theorist Jaron Lanier has argued in the past that artificial intelligence is in fact a misnomer and even a form of accounting theft from the millions of humans whose data is aggregated, this will not stop automation from destroying jobs.

Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie (Facebook)
Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie (Facebook)

“You can already see there is no need for travel agents anymore,” Lavie told The Times of Israel. “I was really surprised that soon we won’t need bus drivers. There was a time in Israel when every mother wanted her son to be a bus driver. To work for Egged was like — wow — you had a golden ticket and job security.”

Shavit Madhala-Brik, the Hebrew University graduate student who authored the report, said that the jobs most likely to survive are those that require a high level of emotional intelligence and/or creativity. Thus, doctors, psychologists, choreographers, computer programmers and occupational therapists are safe for now.

A fuller list of professions and their risk of disappearing can be found here.

With new technology comes new jobs

Despite her dramatic predictions, Madhala-Brik is cautiously optimistic.

“Just because 41 percent of jobs are at high risk doesn’t mean 41 percent of people will be unemployed. People will adapt to the changes. History teaches that as technology develops it creates new kinds of jobs.”

Shavit Madhala-Brik (Courtesy)
Shavit Madhala-Brik (Courtesy)

For instance, says Madhala-Brik, even if your job is replaced by a computer, that computer will still need humans to operate and repair it. In addition, there are many caring professions that currently have a dearth of workers, like medicine, nursing and caring for kids and the elderly.

“Lots of people are moving into service professions.”

Lavie, too, thinks that new professions will emerge in the coming decades.

“I just heard of a new job: a professional bicycle teacher. When we were kids, there was no such thing. Your parents taught you or you learned on your own. But now parents have no time. There’s also coaching, there’s teaching piano to adults. I see a lot of entrepreneurship among young people.”

But what if new jobs aren’t spontaneously emerging?

That is the thesis of the book, “The Coming Jobs War,” by Gallup CEO Jim Clifton. Clifton says that out of 7 billion people in the world there are 5 billion adults. Out of these 5 billion, 3 billion want to work. But there are only 1.2 billion formal jobs in the world, by which he means a steady job with 30+ hours a week and benefits. That’s a shortfall of 1.8 billion jobs. According to Clifton, mass unemployment leads to crime and social unrest.

This poses a problem in Israel, where, according to the Taub Center report, the group most at risk of losing their jobs in the next two decades are Arab men. Fifty-seven percent of jobs held by non-Jewish men in Israel are at high risk of disappearing in the next two decades, Madhala-Brik found.

“We’re going to need government intervention and job training,” she said, “especially for weaker populations: Arabs, Haredim and people over 50.”

A future of mass unemployment?

According to Martin Ford, author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” there are already signs that the displacement of humans by robots is happening.

“We do not yet see outright unemployment,” he told The Times of Israel, “but in my book I talk about seven important trends in the US, including stagnant wages, declining workforce participation, labor’s declining share of income, less robust job creation, longer jobless recoveries and a hallowing out of middle-skill jobs.”

Asked whether there will be enough new jobs to replace the ones lost, Ford replied: “I think there will certainly be new jobs created by technology, the question is whether there will be enough of them and whether they will be accessible to average people.”

“There will certainly be new roles created,” he added, “…but these jobs constitute a very small percentage of total employment. So it is hard to believe there will be enough such jobs created for everyone that will be displaced from traditional occupations.”

A robot writes a Torah at an installation in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)
A robot writes a Torah at an installation in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)


As to what to do with all the unemployed people, Ford adds that he doesn’t think job programs and retraining will suffice.

“I think in the long run we may have to consider a fairly radical adaption — something like a guaranteed or basic income to ensure that everyone in our society benefits from the progress we are likely to see in the coming decades. Keep in mind, I’m thinking out ten, twenty years or even further. What seems politically unthinkable now may become viable as these trends become more evident.”

Ford adds a warning. “If we fail to make that kind of adaption, then I fear a very dystopian scenario with extreme inequality and souring economic insecurity.”

As for MK Aliza Lavie, she says she is hopeful that if the government plans ahead, there is still a way to keep everyone employed.

“I believe in initiative and entrepreneurship. I don’t think there will a reduction in number of jobs. But we do have to take this possibility into account. The country needs to prepare for everything.”

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