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Time magazine 1955On March 28, 1955, Time magazine reported on a new generation of machinery called computers. The cover featured a drawing of IBM’s Thomas Watson, Jr. in front of a cartoonish robot drawn by Boris Artzybasheff, over a headline that read, “Clink. Clank. Think.” The story marveled at a computer built by IBM, working inside a Monsanto office building. “To IBM, it was the Model 702 Electronic Data Processing Machine,” the story reported. “To awed visitors, it was simply ‘the giant brain.’”

Time equated the IBM computer with the advance of civilization. “The prospects for mankind are truly dazzling,” the article said. “Automation of industry will mean new reaches of leisure, new wealth, new dignity for the laboring man.”

The Time magazine article has echoes of Keynes prediction from his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, that the working week would be drastically cut, to perhaps 15 hours a week, with people choosing to have far more leisure as their material needs were satisfied.  In his essay Keynes may have been looking towards 2030 when he wrote: “What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence?”

Even though his essay was written in the second year of the Great Depression Keynes highlighted the advances in technology that contributed to the impressive economic growth that the West attained since the industrial revolution:

From the sixteenth century, with a cumulative crescendo after the eighteenth, the great age of science and technical inventions began, which since the beginning of the nineteenth century has been in full flood – coal, steam, electricity, petrol, steel, rubber, cotton, the chemical industries, automatic machinery and the methods of mass production, wireless, printing, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, and thousands of other things and men too famous and familiar to catalogue.

Keynes then gave a warning of  ‘a new disease in the years to come, namely, technological unemployment.’

This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.

Major current debate concerns whether new technologies are creating ‘technological unemployment’ whereby many workers are displaced by new technologies and find it difficult to become employed again.

Much of this debate points to robots as the main culprit of displacing people from the workplace. Professor Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, in a Financial Times article, invites us to: “think of every employee you’ve had contact with in the last two or three days, and think, is that person going to be replaced by a robot in the next 20 years?”

Thomas Watson Junior believed the introduction of machines into the workplace would not lead us (the average workers) into technological unemployment but provide more wealth and more leisure time and also free us up for more creative activities. From the1955 Time magazine article:

President Watson hopes to mechanize hundreds of processes which require the drab, repetitive “thought” of everyday business. Thus liberated from grinding routine, man can put his own brain to work on problems requiring a function beyond the capabilities of the machine: creative thought.

This creativity aspect is something author Tyler Cowen emphasizes in his book Average is Over, and venture capitalist Mark Andreesen screams: “Robots will not eat the jobs but will unleash our creativity.”

The fact — automation is driving technological unemployment, jobs are being obliterated. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) there are 200 million unemployed people worldwide. Many of these, such as millions of professionals that worked in banks, insurance companies, travel agents, retail, and other service industries have been displaced as software automates their jobs.

Robots in, jobs go up 

But so far companies that implement robots (a mechanical hardware and software device that incorporates movement/action) are actually adding jobs. Our research shows 76 companies that implemented industrial or factory/warehouse robots actually increased the number of employees by 294,000 over the last 3 years. Amazon famed for the acquisition of Kiva Robotics has in fact added more than 89,000 new staff to its payroll over the last 3 years. The company now employs over 117,000 people, more than four times the 28,300 employees it reported on June 30th 2010. Tesla Motors, manufacturer of electric cars and with one of the most sophisticated robot manufacturing sites has added over 6,000 new jobs.

Hundreds of thousands of new jobs are being created in drone manufacturers, industrial robot makers and other sectors of the robotic arena. The EU recently announced the world’s largest investment in robotics and a target of an additional 240,000 new jobs in the region.

It is highly probable over a million new jobs will be created in the robotics sectors in the coming 5 years. Whilst significantly less than the ILO cited numbers to solve the world’s unemployment problems, nevertheless it is a step forward – when others are screaming that robots ‘ARE’ eating jobs – let’s be realistic, software IS eating jobs; robotics is currently creating jobs.

Whilst I am optimistic about the near future for job creation in the robot sector, in the long run it is also highly probable that robots will displace people from jobs. How this will play out in 2030 is anyone’s guess – it is not too far away so I would suggest asking the same question as Professor Robert Gordon above. I also know robot manufacturers are very aware of the likely societal impact robots can have on jobs. As Melvin Kranzberg said: “Technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves.”

It’s better to be prepared than caught out. My advice to young people — now is a good time to join the robot sector.

Update – Business Insider has a nice summary and other pointers on this article – This Settles The ‘Robots Will Take Our Jobs’ Argument Once And For All

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