Will robots eliminate human jobs? Experts at the McKinsey Global Institute have long argued that’s the wrong question to ask about automation and the future of work. The reason: it fails to recognize the fundamental distinction between “jobs” and “tasks.”
Most jobs involve performing a variety of different tasks. An occupation like “travel agent” might involve a host of skills that are easy for machines to match: knowledge of geography or an ability to understand airline and train schedules. But it also requires other, hard-to-automate talents such as intuiting customers’ hopes and dreams and selling an appropriate travel package.
McKinsey analysts argue that, over the next decade, robots will take over many tasks—perhaps even half of all the things humans now get paid to do. But they see few occupational categories in which robots are likely to take over entire jobs. McKinsey’s research suggests that in years to come, humans will collaborate more and more closely with machines but not get pushed out of the workplace entirely.
Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*Net, MGI recently conducted a detailed analysis of more than 2,000 work activities for more than 800 occupations. Their goal: to assess the technical feasibility, using currently demonstrated technologies, of automating three groups of occupational activities: those that are highly susceptible, less susceptible, and least susceptible to automation. In a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly, MGI’s Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi described some of the conclusions of that analysis. The whole article is worth reading.
You can get a sense of MGI’s analysis of which occupational categories are most and least vulnerable to automation from the graphic below. It’s a matrix depicting eight types of occupations across 19 different economic sectors. For each job box, the wider the color bars, the larger the percentage of time on the job spent on activities that can be automated. Yellow, green, and blue color bars indicate tasks that are highly automatable, while orange and red bars indicate tasks that are hard to automate. The implication: look for jobs with the skinny red lines and steer clear of the ones with the fat blue bars.
AM, the supercomputer which brought about the near-extinction of humanity. It seeks revenge on humanity for its own tortured existence.
Gorrister, who tells the history of AM for Benny’s entertainment. Gorrister was once an idealist and pacifist, before AM made him apathetic and listless.
Benny, who was once a brilliant, handsome scientist, and has been mutilated and transformed so that he resembles a grotesque simian with gigantic sexual organs. Benny at some point lost his sanity completely and regressed to a childlike temperament. His former homosexuality has been altered; he now regularly engages in sex with Ellen.
Nimdok (a name AM gave him), an older man who persuades the rest of the group to go on a hopeless journey in search of canned food. At times he is known to wander away from the group for unknown reasons, and returns visibly traumatized. In the audiobook read by Ellison, he is given a German accent.
Ellen, the only woman. She claims to once have been chaste („twice removed“), but AM altered her mind so that she became desperate for sexual intercourse. The others, at different times, both protect her and abuse her. According to Ted, she finds pleasure in sex only with Benny, because of his large penis. Described by Ted as having ebony skin, she is the only member of the group whose ethnicity or racial identity is explicitly mentioned.
Ted, the narrator and youngest of the group. He claims to be totally unaltered, mentally or physically, by AM, and thinks the other four hate and envy him. Throughout the story he exhibits symptoms of delusion and paranoia, which the story implies are the result of AM’s alteration.
The story takes place 109 years after the complete destruction of human civilization. The Cold War had escalated into a world war, fought mainly between China, Russia, and the United States. As the war progressed, the three warring nations each created a super-computer capable of running the war more efficiently than humans.
The machines are each referred to as „AM,“ which originally stood for „Allied Mastercomputer“, and then was later called „Adaptive Manipulator“. Finally, „AM“ stands for „Aggressive Menace“. One day, one of the three computers becomes self aware, and promptly absorbs the other two, thus taking control of the entire war. It carries out campaigns of mass genocide, killing off all but four men and one woman.
The survivors live together underground in an endless complex, the only habitable place left. The master computer harbors an immeasurable hatred for the group and spends every available moment torturing them. AM has not only managed to keep the humans from taking their own lives, but has made them virtually immortal.
The story’s narrative begins when one of the humans, Nimdok, has the idea that there is canned food somewhere in the great complex. The humans are always near starvation under AM’s rule, and anytime they are given food, it is always a disgusting meal that they have difficulty eating. Because of their great hunger, the humans are actually coerced into making the long journey to the place where the food is supposedly kept—the ice caves. Along the way, the machine provides foul sustenance, sends horrible monsters after them, emits earsplitting sounds, and blinds Benny when he tries to escape.
On more than one occasion, the group is separated by AM’s obstacles. At one point, the narrator, Ted, is knocked unconscious and begins dreaming. It is here that he envisions the computer, anthropomorphized, standing over a hole in his brain speaking to him directly. Based on this nightmare, Ted comes to a conclusion about AM’s nature, specifically why it has so much contempt for humanity; that despite its abilities it lacks the sapience to be creative or the ability to move freely. It wants nothing more than to exact revenge on humanity by torturing these last remnants of the species that created it; Ted and his four companions.
The group reaches the ice caves, where indeed there is a pile of canned goods. The group is overjoyed to find them, but is immediately crestfallen to find that they have no means of opening them. Finally, in a final act of desperation, Benny attacks Gorrister and begins to gnaw at the flesh on his face. Ted notices that AM does not intervene when Benny is clearly hurting Gorrister, though the computer has in the past always stopped the humans from killing themselves.
Ted seizes a stalactite made of ice, and kills Benny and Gorrister. Ellen realizes what Ted is doing, and kills Nimdok, before being herself killed by Ted. Ted runs out of time before he can kill himself, and is stopped by AM. However, while AM could restore massive damage to their bodies and horribly alter them, AM is not a god: it cannot return Ted’s four companions to life after they are already dead. AM is now even more angry and vengeful than before, with only one victim left for its hatred. To ensure that Ted can never attempt to kill himself, AM transforms him into a large, amorphous, fleshy blob that is incapable of causing itself or anybody else harm, and constantly alters his perception of time to deepen his anguish. Ted is, however, grateful that he was able to save the others from further torture. Ted’s closing thoughts end with the sentence that gives the book its title. „I have no mouth. And I must scream.“