Two days ago, on the 21/10/2015, was the day where the heroes of the film Back to The Future arrived in the future. SciFi films have often used the theme of robots being in our everyday life and even replacing us for many tasks. You may have noticed in recent months more and more alarmed press coverage of the progress of robotics and automation and how these machines and computers will make us humans obsolete. If you type “job replaced by robot” in your browser, this is what you could get:
A machine gave me these results – it might be biased
A little bit of history
Throughout history, technological progress has enhanced human lives and allowed our species to thrive. Jobs have been lost to new techniques and machines repeatedly. If you look way back, a few thousand years ago, agriculture made the hunter less relevant. Machines made some professions irrelevant. Before the printing press, monks were copying books. They had to adapt and do other monk things (it may explain why they have so much time on hand since they don’t copy much these days).
Often, the transition from hand-made jobs to machines was met with resistance. One very famous episode is the Luddite movement, emanating from England in the early 1800’s. Now, a lot was written about the Luddites. A Wikipedia entry tells us that the Luddites were textile workers who protested against the new weaving machines, primarily between 1811 and 1816. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace them with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work. The Luddite movement culminated in a region-wide rebellion that required a massive deployment of military force to suppress.
From that moment was coined the concept of luddite, which is a person opposed to industrialisation or technology.
However, this is not what exactly happened. Luddites were actually pro-machines but they were also high-wage workers, crafting high-quality textiles on machines. They protested against factory owners who set up new lower quality machines, producing lesser quality garments, and using staff with no prior training at a much lower wage. In fact, Luddites were rather closer to a “trade union” of highly trained professionals who wanted machines to help them do a better job. It had to be said!
I could not find the right comment on this comic but I liked it
Common pattern of fear
What is true though, is that the people of this time were experiencing rapid change and wondered about the impact on their everyday life and their future.
The common pattern is the following. A new technique/technology is introduced, enhancing productivity and reducing cost of production. As the new technique/technology is spreading, job losses mounts in this very segment as machines replaces human labour.
Former workers, who acquired a lot of specialized skills, are unable to retrain fast enough or unable to move location to start new jobs. A mass of unhappy people forms and becomes restless, drawing attention from the media or local politicians.
However, often the economy as a whole does not perceive a disruption.
This is where economics can help us to understand: as the cost to provide these goods and services drop, so do their prices. Consumers reap the benefit of these lower costs and can use the surplus for other goods and services, growing the economy elsewhere.
One major example throughout centuries is food. As new techniques and tools were introduced, the cost of food progressively decreased as a proportion of income and jobs were lost in agriculture.
The surplus income was used to buy other goods while jobs were created to manufacture these goods. Below you can see how there used to be 90% of the labour force in agriculture 200 years ago in the USA. It is now less than 2% and the USA is the largest exporter of food stuff globally. However, there is not 88% unemployment: new jobs were created elsewhere.
Not a lot of career choices in 1800
Obviously, machines have been targeting a lot of manual labour throughout history. But service-based jobs have also seen a lot of tasks being automated or facilitated by machines/computers: think for instance how few secretaries or bank tellers remain.
Automation is now gaining jobs where intellect is needed such as lawyers, doctors, professors. For instance, new algorithms can look through thousands of pages of court cases to find the right angle for a trial. Or they can look through tons of published medical research to find new questions to ask for new studies.
This is what is creating new fears currently: the only jobs spared by robots would be the creative ones, which not everyone can do.
However, this is probably over dramatising. Let’s be wary of those who lament the disappearance of jobs such as a bank clerk as if keeping them would ensure a strong economy. The luddite fallacy, an economics term, is linked to the false fear that technological advance will destroy jobs because as machines take over, there is less to do for workers. This is seeing an economy with a static view. In real-life, and this has been proven for the past 10,000 years, technology leads to an increase in productivity and wealth. That in turn leads to increased demand for goods and services and thus more jobs, including ones in fields which I cannot imagine today.
It is actually quite exciting that these alarming articles are spreading – they suggest we are living in times of intense technological advances and historically they have corresponded to times of great job and wealth creations. In 2014, the USA added 3 million jobs, the most in a year since 1999, despite many news innovations being brought to the market.
So let’s be positive about these advances and try to embrace them as well as we can. Professor Stephen Hawking mentioned artificial intelligence recently as either a great opportunity or something that could one day “wipe out the human specie”. Guess which part of the quote was kept by the media?