Automation and Work

Stephen DeAngelis

July 22, 2016

“Which picture more accurately describes the impact of automation on a workforce,” asks Adrienne Selko (@ASelkoIW), “an orchestrated collaboration between man and machine, or a worker being shown the door as the robot takes over his job?”[1] Selko’s ambivalent answer is, “Probably both.” She’s correct, of course. Few things in life are truly black or white or demand strict either/or decisions. Technology has always displaced some members of the workforce causing them to find new lines of work. In that respect, nothing has changed. Oscar Williams-Grut (@OscarWGrut) reports, “There is no need to worry about whether robots might start taking our jobs. It’s already happening. Three of the world’s 10 largest employers are already replacing tens of thousands of their workers with robots.”[2] What has changed, according to many pundits, is the scope of tasks that can or will be automated. They fear few jobs will escape automation’s advance and, as a result, they predict there will be massive unemployment leading to social unrest and economic chaos. That future is much more likely than one in which Terminator-like networks and machines begin ruling the world and attempt to destroy mankind — but it is equally unacceptable. Jacinda Tutty (@JacindaTutty) writes, “Robots are coming to take over the world, just not in the way Hollywood would have us believe. The legions of intelligent computer-powered machines aren’t coming to eradicate our species. They’re coming to take our jobs.”[3]

 

As Selko notes, a much better future is one in which there is orchestrated collaboration between man and machine. It’s the best of both worlds — humans remain employed and companies reap the benefits normally associated with automation (such as improved efficiency and fewer errors). But that future is not assured. It will take deliberate planning on the part of business executives, labor leaders, and policymakers. Unfortunately, Brookings Institution analysts Jack Karsten () and Darrell M. West () write, “Emerging technologies like industrial robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are advancing at a rapid pace, but there has been little attention to their impact on employment and public policy.”[4] We can’t wait much longer to make jobs sustainability a priority in policy debates. Simon Wilson argues, “The threat of economic dislocation is real and growing.”[5] He cites Moshe Vardi, a professor of computer science at Rice University, who states, “We are approaching the time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. Society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?” Workers whose jobs are threatened by automation would like to see policies put in place halting the advance of automation; but, that is neither feasible nor desirable.

 

The staff at the Economist notes, “Artificial intelligence will have implications for policymakers in education, welfare and geopolitics”[6] Andrew Ng, a Stanford professor, told the Economist “that given the potential impact of their work on the labor market, AI researchers ‘have an ethical responsibility to step up and address the problems we cause.'” Part of the solution is rethinking how we prepare our young people for the workplace. The Economist explains:

“America and other developed countries should … put more emphasis on vocational and technical education, as Germany does, rather than encouraging everyone to go to university, says David Autor at MIT. But that does not simply mean offering more apprenticeships, which typically involve five to seven years of training. ‘That doesn’t make sense if the skills you need are changing every three to five years,’ says James Bessen at the Boston University School of Law. So the traditional apprenticeship model will have to be tweaked. Community colleges are setting up all kinds of schemes that combine education with learning on the job, says Mr Bessen.”

Selko concludes, “It’s my contention that it’s the training — or re-training — of workers that will ultimately answer the question of whether automation will drive massive labor loss. But we’d better figure this out quickly.” Even if we change the culture and mindset about how we prepare people for the workplace, retraining and reskilling workers won’t be enough. We will also have to ensure that sufficient jobs are available for skilled workers. That’s why I believe that human/machine collaboration must characterize the future if social upheaval and economic disaster are to be avoided. The Economist points out that automation has broader implications for the global economy. It explains:

“The risk is that automation could deny poorer countries the opportunity for economic development through industrialization. Economists talk of ‘premature deindustrialization’; Dani Rodrik of Harvard University notes that manufacturing employment in Britain peaked at 45% just before the first world war, but has already peaked in Brazil, India and China with a share of no more than 15%. This is because manufacturing is much more automated than it used to be.”

Global economic prosperity largely relies on the continued emergence of the global middle class. We can’t afford to let automation blunt efforts to bring more of the world’s poor out of poverty. “Surely this means that robots are our foes,” writes MIT’s Andrew McAfee (@amcafee).[7] He adds, “No, it absolutely does not.” He explains:

“To believe otherwise is to reduce us humans to the status of mere laborers — and that is an offensively reductive view of our species. … Robots are not our enemies — for two important reasons. First, they are not going to put us all out of work any time soon. There are still a lot of things that technology cannot do — from clearing a table to coaching a team to writing a novel. And even the biggest techno-optimists do not think that these things will be 100 per cent automated in the near future. … The second and much more important reason that robots are not our foes is that they make us richer overall. By increasing our capabilities and productivity, they create more bounty and abundance. We like to communicate, learn, entertain ourselves, travel and consume goods and services. Technological progress lets us do more of all of these things for a given amount of money (or, increasingly these days, for no money at all), and at higher levels of quality. It is true that the way most of us gain access to much of this bounty is by getting paid for our labor. It is also true that this ‘labor bargain’ is becoming a tougher one for more and more people as their skills become less valuable, because of both globalization and technological progress. We need to figure out how to deal with this situation. This will be one of the most important policy arenas over the coming decades.”

Most pundits seem to agree that we need to figure out how to deal with this situation, but few answers are available. As I noted earlier, it will take our best minds and the involvement of all stakeholders to guide us into the preferred future in which men and machines work collaboratively in the workplace.

 

Footnotes
[1] Adrienne Selko, “Let’s Settle This: Is Automation Good for Workers or Not?Material Handling & Logistics, 13 June 2016.
[2] Oscar Williams-Grut, “3 of the world’s 10 largest employers are now replacing their workers with robots,” Business Insider, 9 June 2016.
[3] Jacinda Tutty, “Robots, work and the jobs of tomorrow,” The Daily Telegraph, 29 May 2016.
[4] Jack Karsten and Darrell M. West, “How robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning will affect employment and public policy,” The Brookings Institution, 26 October 2015.
[5] Simon Wilson, “How robots will change the world,” MoneyWeek, 19 June 2016.
[6] “Re-educating Rita,” The Economist, 25 June 2016.
[7] Andrew McAfee, “We should embrace robots, not fear them,” The Financial Times, 5 May 2016.