Cultural Series panelists discuss the future of work, innovation

Staff writer: Edward McFadden

Clarion University’s 2017-2018 Seifert Cultural Series continued Tuesday with the
panel discussion, “Automation and the Future of Work in America.”

Panelists of academic backgrounds in history, physics, math and operations
management presented based on the theme of the series: “Work and the American
Dream,” and discussed how rise in automation will affect labor.

Talks featured subjects including historical precedents of technology’s effects on
the working class, types of jobs that are susceptive to loss of human workers in favor of
automation and what courses of action may act as insurance against the trend.

The growing body of literature by business writers varies in its predictions, but many
indicate that the blue-collar worker is in danger of being replaced.

USA Today cited a study predicting 73 million jobs lost to robots by the year 2030,
while the Verge contended that this figure will be closer 800 million.

Technological innovations such as self-driving cars have already been tested to
perform well under certain driving conditions, and IBM’s AI computer system, Watson, is
compiling the most comprehensive database of medical information autonomously.

Clarion’s Dr. Vasudeva Aravin of the math and physics department presented these
examples and others of automation already impacting work.

His talk centered on the idea that robots will undoubtedly take jobs and that certain job
characteristics make them more likely to be automated in the future, such as those that are
highly repetitive and standardized, like construction and manufacturing. The latter
industry, he said, was predicted by the World Economic Forum to lose
five million jobs by 2020.

Dr. Chunfei Li presented a different view. The proliferation of automation, he said,
will empower more people to work in creative, even technical jobs.

“Sit back,” he said, “relax. Your job will not be gone tomorrow. But on the other hand, you have to understand,
it is coming.”

A particularly personal moment came during Dr. Tony John’s presentation.

The operations manager professor recounted his family’s background working in
cotton fields until the McCormack machine cotton picker was introduced and killed labor
at a rate of 40 jobs per machine.

The experience led Johns to obtain an undergraduate degree in engineering, a field
he thought was profitable, but which left him unhappy and bored.

“You need to position yourself so that you can reinvent yourself,” said Johns.
“Because I paid attention in college to all my other subjects, I can reinvent myself fairly
easily, and I can go into something else.”

Dr. Erik Loomis of the University of Rhode Island echoed the theme of taking a
creative approach to careers.

The visiting professor singled out UPS, FedEx and CVS as companies that are
moving towards automation. It is no longer jobs, but “entire industries” that are moving
towards robot work, Loomis argued.

He went on to suggest that the way forward is to “learn to think, write and talk to
people,” functions that robots are notoriously bad at performing.

For Josh Toma, a finance major, it was an extra credit opportunity that brought him
to the panel discussion. He reported enjoying the animated presenting style of Dr. Loomis,
and said the content was interesting.

“I’m not too worried,” Toma said about the prospect of automation in the
workplace. “Finance is pretty versatile. I can go into banking, I can go into mortgaging, I
can be a financial advisor. That would be kind of difficult to automate a financial analyst.”

Toma closed by saying he thought automation would initially create more social
problems than it solves, but that, in the long run, it would benefit society.

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