Today’s reality is beginning to look a lot like the realm of sci-fi movies.
We may not have flying automobiles (yet), but driverless cars are already roaming beyond the streets of Silicon Valley. Airborne drones help farmers increase yields and reduce crop damage, and warehouse robots are the workhorses of the most efficient e-commerce distribution channels. Automation is changing the way we do business, the way we work, and the way we live.
Technology has always been an essential driver of human progress, enhancing quality of life on an individual level and economic productivity for our society as a whole. The lightbulb enabled us to work, study, and play longer. The steam engine enabled us to travel and transport goods farther, faster, and cheaper. The internet enabled information to move freely in the blink of an eye.
Automating mundane tasks will no doubt yield similar benefits by allowing us to produce more with less work, but therein lies what could be a serious problem: robots and other automation technologies threaten to make a significant dent in employment. An Oxford study estimates that 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. are at risk of elimination over the next 20 years, and McKinsey & Company substantiates this forecast, predicting a $2 trillion loss in annual wages. Routine blue collar jobs are already being displaced, and many white-collar administrative office functions are at risk as well. Some economists warn that with so many jobs on the brink of extinction, drastic policy measures such as a universal basic income should be considered.
History shows that when technology destroys jobs, it also gives birth to new jobs in fresh industries. For example, the internet made travel agencies, map makers, video stores, and several other industries obsolete, driving many into unemployment. But with the internet came the field of information technology. Now, IT employs nearly 5 million workers in the U.S., and these jobs pay well: the median wage for IT workers is just over $80,000 a year. Likewise, robots will create new jobs for those who design, operate, and maintain them.
Automation may even “insource” jobs that were once exported. Low-paying jobs that were previously outsourced to Asia could transition into U.S.-based jobs for highly-paid robot operators and software programmers. Thus, American businesses with laborers who are mostly offshore have the potential not only to become more competitive with the productivity gains rendered by automation, but they could also begin hiring more Americans.
At some point, employment turnover in dying industries will increase too much to be ignored. As budget constraints limit our ability to keep up with the need for unemployment benefits, we may have to simply reinvent unemployment. For instance, instead of providing indefinite monthly checks, we should offer assistance and retraining for the workers who are left behind by an economy of accelerating technology. Furthermore, we should instill in our children the value of lifelong learning. A student who prepares for one career may need to know how to adapt her skills to another by the time she graduates. Meanwhile, loosening labor regulations could slow the transition of work from humans to machines, giving employees whose jobs are in jeopardy the time to develop new skills.
The question of automating tasks is not if it will happen, but when it will happen. As with all major technological shifts, there will certainly be difficulties along the way, but the spirit of innovation is part of America’s DNA. Invention is not limited to roboticists and software developers; American workers—white and blue collar alike—will still be the heart and soul of our economy. Robots will simply help us push it forward.