Sep 18 2018

Are Robots Taking Our Jobs?

If you were a woodworker, or any craftsman or probably had any job, in the 13th century you didn’t have to worry that technological innovation would render your position obsolete. With the industrial revolution, and the technological revolutions since, there has been an increasing pace of turnover of the kinds of jobs needed in the workplace. We no longer need switchboard operators, and the need for carriage drivers has plummeted.

Technology and automation do displace jobs. Worries that robots are coming for our jobs is not new – remember that Twilight Zone episode from 1964 where the W.V. Whipple Manufacturing Co. automates the factory and lets off all the workers? Well here we are more than 50 years later and the unemployment rate is historically low.

There are several ways to measure this, one is the productivity per person, or per hour worked. To put this into perspective, between the year 1 and the year 1820, productivity per year per person increased from about $600 to $1200, essentially doubling in about 2000 years. Since 1820, however, productivity increased to $26,000 – by more than a factor of 20. In the 20th century, the economy has grown by a steady 2% per year. This continuous growth has only been the norm for the past 200 years, however.

The pace of increasing productivity is also increasing. This is largely due to automation, W.V. Whipple style. Machines are increasingly doing much of the repetitive manual labor, and workers using modern technology can simply produce more. It’s often easy to see how automation will displace jobs. Eventually, self-driving cars will displace the Uber drivers who displaced the taxi drivers.

However, the reason the Twilight Zone dystopia has not come to pass is that increasing technology and innovation eventually creates more jobs than it destroys. A new study by the World Economic Forum finds that:

…robots will displace 75 million jobs globally by 2022 but create 133 million new ones – a “net positive”.

There are still, however, some legitimate concerns here, both short and long term. Let’s assume for now that this trend will continue, technological innovation creating net job. The real problem, then, is not lost jobs but displaced workers. Workers have to constantly be retrained with new skills for new jobs.

This is where the pace of change becomes a factor. I can be very disruptive to have one’s skill set become obsolete. Politicians often pander to these workers by vowing to protect their jobs – but this is a fool’s errand. You can’t, and don’t want to, stop innovation. The better response is to have safety nets in place that help displaced workers during their transition period, and make available opportunities for retraining.

That way – everyone wins. Workers have a new, and likely better, job. Companies have more productive workers. Society becomes more productive. We just have to make sure that people’s lives don’t fail during the transition.

That much is a no-brainer, and it seems that every thoughtful approach to this issues comes to the same conclusion – don’t protect obsolete jobs, train workers for the new jobs.

The more interesting question to me is the speculative one – how will these trends play out in the future? The maximally optimistic view is that current trends will essentially continue without any effective limit. This means that society will become more and more productive, raising quality of life. Jobs will become less and less about hard physical labor, and will increasingly be creative and require distinctive human qualities. We all get to have fun creative jobs while machines do all the hard work.

But what is the maximally pessimistic view? In the medium term it is that the pace of advance becomes so great, people will spend more of their time in between jobs than actually working. We will be constantly retraining. Theoretically, the job landscape might change so fast that a new job becomes obsolete faster than it takes to train for it.

Then eventually machines will become so capable that they can do literally anything a human can do, only better, faster, and cheaper. Robots will come for all our jobs. There is no technological reason why this won’t happen (once we develop human-level general artificial intelligence). Then, what will society be like? I don’t think we can know the answer to this – there are simply too many possibilities, and it is notoriously difficult to predict human behavior, especially in novel situations.

But speculating wildly – it’s possible that people will simply not have to work. Automated and self-sustaining machines will do all the necessary work of civilization. This is not a new concept. The question then becomes – is a society without the need for work a good or bad thing. Again there are optimists and pessimists. Optimists see a future full of leisure, freedom, and abundance. Pessimists see the social disruption, loss of cohesion, and loss of purpose. What kind of society will we have when people don’t have to do anything. Will it be like the spaceship from Wall-e? What kinds of activities, institutions, and norms will fill in the void left by the need for work?

It is fascinating to speculate. But our speculation is hopelessly futile, because we don’t know what disruptive technologies will do to that future without work. Will we be spending most of our time in a virtual reality, or will we turn outward and explore? The short answer is probably, yes – different people will do all of those things. But what will dominate? To what extent will we merge with our machines? What will humans themselves become in this future? We cannot just place 21st century people into this distant future without work (similar to how past futurists put themselves into our present).

In any case – for the foreseeable future, machine automation is a good thing, increasing productivity, and accelerating the “creative destruction” of the marketplace. Yes – robots will take many of our jobs, but they will give us more better jobs in their place. For now, it seems, we are best served by preparing for and facilitating this change, not fighting against it.

 

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