There are prominent doomsayers like Tesla CEO Elon Musk who believe automation will take away our jobs and usefulness as human beings — and kick off the robot apocalypse. But in recent studies and interviews, many experts have come out on the other side with a more measured take on how automation can improve workers’ conditions and actually create new jobs.
1) More jobs
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal made the case that in certain industries, automation has historically increased employment opportunities. The Journal cites the banking industry in the 1970s after automated tellers were introduced. After ATMs were introduced, more branches with more staff were added as well. In fact, the Boston University School of Law found that 43% more human tellers have been added in the past 30 years after ATMs were added.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, more than 90% of jobs will not be able to be fully automated. That’s why Alphabet’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt cited this study when he told a Viva Tech audience that automation will create more jobs than can be filled.
“Your future is you with a computer, not you replaced by a computer,” he said. “I’m convinced that there is in fact going to be a jobs shortage… the way we’ll fill them is to take people plus computers, and the computers will make people smarter.”
But there’s a caveat: The people who are getting these new jobs are not always the same as those having their jobs displaced by automation. “The people thrown out of work by automation are seldom the same people employed in the new industries that automation makes possible,” the Journal‘s article acknowledges.
Okay, so someone will be getting a shiny new job that’s never been done when the robots takeover, but it may not be you. That ambivalence aligns with other surveys around automation anxiety. Two-thirds of Americans, for example, believe that robots will be doing our jobs in the next 50 years, but 80% of those people also think that their own current jobs at least are safe.
2) Higher pay
Then there’s the example of the giant e-commerce industry. As the brick-and-mortar retail industry faces disruption over the convenience that e-commerce’s automated shopping provides, monthly U.S. government jobs reports have focused on the job losses this industry has faced. But The Journal found that once you include fulfillment-center jobs, you find that e-commerce has grown three times as fast as the retail industry’s decline with 401,000 jobs total being added.
And those e-commerce jobs pay more. Citing Progressive Policy Institute research, the Journal found that workers at fulfillment centers earn 31% higher wages on average than people working retail jobs in stores.
3) Better uses for your human brain
Doomsayers believe that robots will bring about our obsolescence, but forecasters predict that that they will redirect our skills to better uses.
Take Japan, for example. Japan is ahead of the United States when it comes to introducing robots into the workplace, and people there don’t seem to have the same angst as Americans do about their robot brethren. Japan leads the world in robots per 10,000 workers in the automobile sector, and it has introduced cute humanoid robots to greet you at the mall.
Of course, as the Associated Press notes, Japanese workers don’t fear the robot takeover, because Japan has a practice of retaining employees for life. The Associated Press profiled factory workers who talked about working in harmony with machines.
That harmonious future is what Australian experts are also banking on. In 2017, the Foundation for Young Australians issued a hopeful report that pictured a world where workers in 2030 will perform fewer boring, manual tasks and will engage in more critical thinking. FYA said that workers will spend 30% more time learning on the job and more time using science and mathematics skills. The report was also meant as a warning if Australia didn’t prepare young people for this future because there are “potential shortcomings of our education system — a system which continues to formally assess based on an old understanding of ‘smart.'”
Optimism about AI
So while Musk is tweeting that super-intelligent robots will bring World War III, there are other experts rebuking dystopian visions and are offering a more hopeful take.
As artificial intelligence expert Max Versace, CEO of Neurala, put it, Musk and others like him are misguided: “They are selling fear.”
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