Robots are replacing factory workers. Automated operating systems are taking the place of customer service centers. Computers are writing news that used to be composed by journalists. And wearable devices are making diagnostic healthcare workers expendable.
It is easy to come to the conclusion that the advance of technology and the automation that comes with it will soon leave a substantial portion of world’s population without the wherewithal to make a living. But in fact, among the researchers who have studied this issue, few, if any, have found statistical evidence of this.
While there is no question that technology disrupts the job market, the question of whether it creates or destroys more jobs has no clear answer. The Pew Research Center recently posed the question to 1,896 persons who they considered experts. (AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs). Asked whether technology will displace more jobs than it creates, 48% said yes; 52% said no.
Those supporting the more positive outlook argued that “advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically, they have been a net creator of jobs.”
Those who celebrate the advance of technology and its impact on the labor market also look at it from the standpoint of quality of work. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Liviu Nedelescu, founder and CEO of Avansys Solutions discusses “Why We Should Want Robots to Take Some Jobs.” Nedelscu dismisses “the dominant dismal view that rapid technological innovation has been gobbling up jobs faster than it is creating them.”
“We have for the majority of humanity’s history used humans for menial, robotic, repeatable efficiency-minded tasks,” Nedelscu notes, suggesting instead, “Humans should eventually be left to more or less exclusively deal with open-ended endeavors that generate new organic value (as opposed to efficiency derived value).”
There are also those in North America and Western Europe who see automation as a way of reversing the decades old trend of outsourcing work to those parts of the world with the least expensive labor pool, those places where workers get paid the least. They see automation as a way to bring the work back home.
These arguments are perhaps most attractive when viewed from the position of the relatively comfortable classes in the developed world. I’m not sure we can in fact create work based on “open-ended endeavors” for the millions of factory workers in Asia, fruit pickers in Central America or outsourced office workers in India.
What happens to persons who don’t have access to the education that enables them to thrive amidst the new opportunities that automation creates. Even in the U.S. there are those who don’t get the education necessary to enable them to aspire to something more than unskilled labor.
If one robot can replace 100 factory workers in China and 50 of these robots can be managed by one guy sitting at a laptop in the U.S., we have indeed brought jobs home, but I’m not sure what we have achieved.
(See also Coding Our Future: What Becomes of Work?)