Threat of Automation
AI novelties like Cortana or Siri pale in comparison to the the machines dreamed up by science fiction authors, but these relatively simplistic artificial intelligence systems are rapidly laying the groundwork for more complex, and therefore more capable, automated machines. Fear over job security due to automation is nothing new, as the industrial revolution proved. The 19th century saw the rise of the Luddites, a collective of textile workers who damaged and destroyed weaving machinery in a doomed effort to preserve their livelihood.
While there aren’t yet groups of club-wielding assembly line workers assaulting automated sections of car manufacturing facilities, there is doubtless a growing concern towards employment prospects in certain industries. In some parts of the world, public opinion borders on alarm; in the United States, for example, a startling 65 percent of the population foresees robots replacing humans in most fields.
What ultimately sets apart current fears over automation is both the rate at which it’s happening, as well as the sheer range of careers allegedly threatened by technology. While technological advances during previous centuries happened at a more predictable rate, Moore’s Law has loomed prophetically over the rate of advancement in computer and information technology. One particularly alarming estimate suggests that as many as six percent of jobs in America will be phased out by technology by 2021. While six percent may seem small, when coupled with current unemployment levels, which estimates place at just over four percent nationally, this amounts to a significant portion of the population. This situation is not confined to the United States, with nearly 5 million workers across 15 nations expected to lose their jobs to robotic technology.
More Than Just Manufacturing Jobs
Secondly, while historically technology has primarily affected manufacturing jobs, the rise of artificial intelligence systems which can receive, interpret, and provide responses to increasingly complex sets of data threatens to displace workers from industries previously thought immune to such automation. The car manufacturing industry has been automating basic tasks since the 1980’s and this technological approach is infiltrating white-collar fields as well. Customer service is one such career. Websites like Amazon and Paypal already use automated FAQ responses to general customer inquiries and while this hardly constitutes a true artificial intelligence, more advanced systems are on the horizon.
Likewise, these simplistic cases of automation do add up. Travel agents have more or less been phased out by flight and hotel booking websites whose systems rapidly query databases to find arrangements that match inputted itineraries. Travel agencies peaked in the 1990’s with about 34,000 such businesses in the United States. Since the advent of online travel agencies which utilized automated technology, this number has dwindled to just 13,000.
Even specialty jobs once thought to require employees possessing both strong educational background and uniquely human intuition have been impacted by automation. Goldman Sachs, a financial leader on Wall Street since the mid-1800’s, has replaced 600 workers with automated trading software since the early 2000’s. What once took the combined effort of four equity traders can now be accomplished by a lone computer engineer. This change isn’t limited to Sachs, as nearly 45 percent of cash equity revenue is generated via electronic trades.
The Bright Side
While looking at specific industries reveals a startling picture, a broader examination of technology and its relationship to jobs paints a less alarming image. Looking to history once again, while the Industrial Revolution saw the rapid replacement of workers with technology, this same technology created new industries that in turn provided new jobs. Technology does not invent or maintain itself; in other words, the very technological advancements that take jobs require human involvement for their development, as well as for their continued maintenance. While certain blue-collar sectors have faced decline over the past few decades, tech sector jobs are still on the rise, indicating a need for workers to develop technology.
As for so-called “unskilled labor,” it’s worth pointing out automation has a habit of creating new jobs rather than outright replacing workers, often in manufacturing and maintaining the very machines that replaced them. While this requires a change in field, provided the education opportunities are available, the majority of workers should be effectively insulated from job loss to advancing technology. Likewise, young people still a few years off from entering the workforce full-time can prepare themselves by receiving an education within the STEM fields.
Furthermore, while alarmists preach widespread automation, the actual number of industries likely to face severe automation in the foreseeable future is somewhat smaller and varies by country. Statistically, the United States is most at risk, and even then the largest threat is against manual work.
If the technological revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries serve as a reliable model, then it’s safe to assume that, while founded, fear regarding job displacement due to technology is at the very least overstated. Replacement won’t happen overnight and mankind has already proven several times over that industries and workers alike are capable of adapting to new paradigms.