Fri 2 Apr, 2010 07:13 pm
I searched the forums for this topic, and altough I saw a few related threads, none of them were exactly what I was looking for. Basically, I wanted to get people's opinions or good links dealing with the impact that modern technology (including hardware, software, robotics, AI, etc) will have on the overall employment situation in developed countries in the not too far-off future.
When the Industrial Revolution happened several centuries ago, technological innovations changed the nature of employment from mostly rural farm related work to urban factory based work for many people. A group of people called the Luddites thought that these changes would be catastrophic due to humans being replaced by machines in the workplace, and fought against them. Although it can be debated whether the Industrial Revolution was good or bad for people, the Luddites appear to have been wrong, since the changes produced many new jobs after making many old ones no longer necessary. Overall, the employment picture did not dramatically change, although specific jobs did.
Centuries later, we are again in a somewhat similar situation, with the Information Revolution that is going on now and has been taking place for the past several decades. To anyone living in the modern world, it is very obvious that this new technology is replacing people in many areas of employment. I will list a few that I am familiar with (in US), but I am sure there are quite a few more. Toll booth operators being replaced with EZ-Pass scanners, supermarket cashiers replaced with automatic checkout computers, automated phone answering services replacing phone operators, online software replacing tax accountants, factory workers being replaced with robots, code generators replacing programmers, etc. Now, this is not meant to imply that all those professionals are replaced right away, just to note a trend.
So from this, it seems like information and related technology is definitely taking human jobs. So did the industrial technology, of course, so there is a sizable camp of people right now who are not worried by this phenomenon. Their perspective is that all new technologies take away some jobs but produce new ones to compensate. I agree with this, as information technology does produce new jobs, but for this to disprove fears of total job loss, two criteria have to be met, in my opinion. One, technology has to produce as many or more jobs as it destroys (otherwise there is an overall decrease), and the jobs have to be on the same or lower level of "complexity" as the ones destroyed (otherwise, even if there are jobs, they are too "complex" for workers who previously worked easier jobs, and overall unemployment increases anyway.
Personally, I do not believe that current technology meets those criteria. Jobs produces by it tend to be (on average) more "complex" than the jobs it destroys (software engineers, robotics experts, computer technicians, inspectors vs clerks, cashiers, phone operators), which violates the 2nd criteria. Many people that lose those jobs will simply be unable to work the new jobs. And, because the new jobs produced typically are paid more, for a company to justify paying for them, a lot more of lesser paid people have to be let go, to make it click financially, violating the 1st criteria. To look at it another way, one large company, with say several thousand employees, can produce these toll booth scanners/checkout machines/phone answering systems for large geographic regions since most of those machines are a one time deal, so a large number of clients would make the most financial sense. Therefore, a single large company employing the new technology produced jobs would put huge numbers of people out work that worked the old jobs for many other companies.
A common argument in economics that I've seen is that higher productivity (achieved via automation) leads to cheaper products, which leads to consumers having more money to spend, leading to more spending, leading to higher demand for more businesses, and thus to higher employment. But I see some problems with this as well. For one thing, if automation results in many people being laid off, regardless of how cheap products are, many people will lack money to buy them. Also, the increased demand in business activity has to be weighed against the layoffs being conducted to achieve it, as well as new businesses hiring fewer people due to their own automation.
I am not an economist nor a philosopher. This is simply something I think about whenever I see another machine or piece of software replace a person. Most of what I stated above is not the result of research, but simply my opinions. I've looked around the Internet for articles regarding this process, but unfortunately, all I've been able to find were one-sided statements of people's own opinions (technology will kill us all! -or- technology is our savior!), rather than an actual debate of the issue with both sides addressing each other. That's why I wanted to get your guys' opinions or possibly nice links about this.
The real world seem to be otherwise.
One type of job will never disappear, and that is customer service.
Robots will never be able to talk to people, express feelings, and make people feel good etc. People love to talk, and they yearn for that human touch in doing business. If my dell computer don` t work, i don` t read the manual, but i call customer service. People that sell you Insurances, cars, food. They will not disappear.
Technology jobs will not disappear. Nowadays, there is a specialist for everything. There is a specialist for your car, engine, your heart, you skin, cancer. As the world become more complicated, there is always going to be people responsible for a tiny part of the whole, and thus, the use for specialist will not disappear.
What i fear the most is the arts. Professions like business, and technology will always have jobs, but for people that are major in philosophy, or humanity in general will suffer. When people study literature, i think they do it to self-improve. There is no measurable output.
There are some interesting studies about how technology is viewed at PEW:
Pew Research Center Reports on Internet and Technology
Look into CSR: corporate social responsibility. You can google it and explore from there.
And look for forcasts of the development of China and India.
I think you are asking some very important questions. And I am certain we are transitioning from the information age to the Automation Empire.
I am a Software Consultant and I have worked in many industries, like banking, finance, utilities, manufacturing, government... All of these areas are consistently reducing staff at varying rates. I love science and technology. I love the United States, but I am worried that a strong middle class is weakening fast and I can not see how it can be brought back.
Think about all the automation which is just around the corner. Think about what is happening with reliable drone aircraft far exceeding piloted aircraft over Afghanistan. Or cars driving more than 100 k miles in the San Francisco Bay area without an accident. And a certain french airliner that crashed in the Atlantic ocean killing all on board because the pilots had for forgotten the very basics of aeronautical flight and failed to put the nose down in a stall because they were fixated on the instruments and clearly incompetent when the autopilot was off.
I am reminded of my little Italian grandfather who worked on the 52 floor of the Empire State building and was very upset when the elevator operator, who he had befriended, and spoke to every morning was replaced by a bunch of cold buttons. Will my kids be telling their children about how they remember taxis, buses and airplanes with humans operators. And restaurants grocery and other stores with human workers running them. Will the term "hand made" remain in our collective vocabulary???
I am encouraging my kids to work hard in educating themselves and sharping their creativity, because they will be competing against humans and technology for gainful employment.
The Luddites might have something this time around. Or maybe I lack the imagination to see how the middle class, which was the pride and foundation of this country, can reinvent it's financial revival.