It’s an age-old story. From the beginning of civilized life, automation has, in some way altered the ways in which we perform tasks and improve productivity. Automation in this sense doesn’t have to refer to robots complicated machinery, but any new innovation that transforms the way that people work.
Case in point, as early as 1589 when Queen Elizabeth I declined William Lee’s request for a patent on his knitting machine, which could make the job of knitting by hand much easier for workers. The Queen refused on grounds that it would deprive her “poor subjects” of employment and “make them beggars.”
As far as artificially intelligent robots eradicating human jobs in the 21st century, there are people on both sides of the argument. Some are convinced that a jobcopalypse is definitely coming, while others dismiss the fears, and insisting that any short-term job loss will only lead to long-term job creation.
Negative Impact on Employment
According to a 2013 study, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, the next “decade or two” will see the elimination of 47 percent of all jobs in the United States. That’s definitely something to be concerned about.
The following graph breaks down the probability of loss of jobs based on industry:
Image Credit: The Atlantic
This prediction comes from the idea that as machines get smarter, they get better at breaking down complicated tasks (which would require a human being to do) in smaller, predictable and specialized tasks, a kind of assembly line which leads to a finished product.
Now new innovative industries are actually taking jobs away, rather than create new ones. This is best expressed through large internet companies like Google and Amazon, who are making unprecedented profits while employing fewer and fewer people.
At this point, even middle management positions, which many regard as immune to automation, are now coming under threat, as demonstrated by this software that can now do just that.
But as tempting as it is to start lobbying for universal basic income at this point, there is another take on this, that of people suggesting that this situation is not nearly as dire as it’s being made out to be.
Just a Phase?
On the other hand, there are those that think these are exaggerated fears, and that, in the long run, we are going to be just fine. Historically speaking, automation has always led to more job creation in the long term by lowering prices (hence creating more demand. More demand=more jobs), while increasing profit, and therefore wages, leading to higher consumption which in turn, leads to more employment.
Additionally, any new technological innovation that kills jobs in one industry results in the creation of new jobs that didn’t previously exist.
Regardless of which argument turns out to be the correct one, it is undeniable that we live in one of the most pivotal times faced by the human race to date. Whether we are ready to deal with the consequences of ceaseless technical progress remains to be seen.