What will automation leave in its wake?

brown-cardboard-robot-artwork-83077635Originally published in the Batesville Daily Guard

March 2, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk about “bringing jobs back” to America since the 2016 presidential campaigns kicked off in 2015. Between 2000 and 2010, 5.6 million manufacturing jobs disappeared from American shores.

A lot of fingers have been pointed at politicians, by both left and right, at international trade. The politicians and their supporters launched nonstop assaults on trade deals like NAFTA and organizations like the World Trade Organization. They singled out countries like China and Mexico, accusing them of stealing American jobs.

While “steal” may be a strong word, approximately 840,000 manufacturing jobs were relocated to those countries, largely due to lower costs and often lower environmental and safety standards.

“But wait!” you say. “You said 5.6 million!”

Yes, I did.

The relocating of manufacturing operations to other countries only accounted for 15 percent of those 5.6 million jobs.

The other 4,760,000 were lost due to technological innovation, largely automation.

But, you don’t hear any politicians saying “let’s ban machines.”

And you won’t.

Robots have been part of manufacturing for decades and are a growing part of it. Today they account for about 10 percent of manufacturing. By 2025 that number will rise to 25 percent, according to the Boston Consulting Group. If you applied 2000 levels of production to 2010 using humans, you’d require 20.9 million instead of the 12.1 million currently employed.

That’s a big number and it’s going to keep growing because it’s good for manufacturers and consumers. Manufacturers like robots because one can do the same work and produce more than multiple humans for a lower cost and far less work-related injuries and pension cost. It’s good for consumers because robots bring their prices down.

It’s not only manufacturing where the impact of automation is being felt. They are making their way into the militaries of not only the U.S., but the world. They are slowly taking over the fast-food business, with many McDonald’s restaurants in the world never requiring interaction with a human being. They’re even writing news stories in some instances, which may not be good news for reporters like me.

robot-actroid-der-credit-gnsin-source-wikipedia-commons-public-domain-225x300I cannot deny the facts, though. Unlike humans, you only need a robot or a computer to learn a task once. When they learn something, that information is downloaded, uploaded and passed on to every robot or computer who needs to learn that skill afterward on an almost instant basis.

Humans, on the other hand, have to go through the process of learning over again with each new worker and each new generation. That information passed down by humans is tainted by preferences and interpretations, things that don’t exist with machines.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it is something we need to get ready for. After all, we’re going to eventually reach a point where the number of jobs necessary are far fewer than the number of people looking for them. We’re not talking about the 5 percent we constantly hover around today. 

A 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the probability of computerization for 702 occupations and found that 47 percent of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation.

That’s a lot of people.

So what can be done?

Well, I guess we could ban automation and I’m sure a politician will eventually suggest that. But it’s not going to happen.

Instead, we really need to just accept it’s going to happen and prepare for it. You know, future proof ourselves.

Future-proofing is the process of anticipating the future and developing methods of minimizing the effects of shocks and stresses of future events. 

Modern politics, particularly in the U.S. is not conductive to that. In a way, Americans still want to act like the solutions lay in the past. But the past never had vehicles that drove themselves.

Like it or not, we’re going to reach a stage where telling someone to “get a job” just isn’t going to make sense anymore. When we get there, we can choose to go the path of the have-everythings/have-nothings dystopias we read about in science fiction or we can choose something else.

Whatever it is, it would probably be wise to start now.

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