Will Automation Enrich Or Enslave Us?

25 Jan , 2016  

Automation is at the centre of a media, political and academic storm. Here, Joseph Walker, content manager for Control Techniques, examines some of the arguments on either side of the debate.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the debate on the effect automation has on jobs is one of the most contentious in the world. Barely a day goes by without a prominent journalist, economist or politician publishing an article in a respected publication about why automation, often described as “robots”, will (or will not) take our jobs.

This is unsurprising, because automation has incredible potential – it could enrich us, or it could enslave us.

Below is a roundup of some of the more interesting articles to have been published on the subject.

Automation will enslave us

“Previous technological innovation has always delivered more long-run employment, not less. But things can change” – The Economist

One of the more negative articles I have read about automation was The Future of Jobs: The Onrushing Wave. The article was unusual because of its source – The Economist – a British financial newspaper normally characterised by a blend of economic liberalism and techno-optimism.

The Economist normally writes about how technology and capitalism will create wealth and secure our future. It does not normally write that the concerns of the Luddites – the 19th century textile workers who destroyed the machines that took their jobs – were understandable. Nevertheless, in the onrushing wave, The Economist argued exactly that.

The article starts by using detailed historical analysis to prove a point about the potential for technology to have a deleterious effect on employment. For example, it shows that between 1750 and 1850, the growth in wages for the average British worker was “imperceptible”. This is fascinating because this period coincides with the most significant change in the job market in history – the industrial revolution – when British workers were forced off farms and into factories. What it means is that for a long period, for most workers, there were no economic benefits to industrialisation.

The paper identified a long-term trend towards lower levels of employment in “some rich countries”, and said evidence that automation will destroy jobs is “more worrying than many economists and politicians have been prepared to admit”.

What has The Economist particularly worried is the automation of what it calls brain work. This mainly relates to the increasing use of software and algorithms to automate well paid, non-routine jobs in the service sector (i.e. jobs of the type that readers of the Economist are likely to be employed in). The paper suggests that airline pilots, soldiers, journalists, traffic police and taxi drivers could all find demand for their services radically reduced.

The article concludes “Society may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages”.

“In the race against the machine, some are likely to win while many others lose” – David Rotman, editor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Review

David Rotman, editor of MIT Technology Review, has discussed at length how technology could affect jobs.

Rotman cites studies which show how rates of employment have declined over the last fifteen years whilst productivity has continued to rise strongly. The implication is that this is possible because robots are taking over productive work from people.

Rotman is interested in how robots may begin to drastically automate high employment parts of the service sector like warehouse distribution units. He relates some interesting examples, such as the website of silicon valley startup Industrial Perception which produced a robot for use in warehouses and has released a video of it “picking up and throwing boxes like a bored elephant”.

Rotman particularly looks at the automation of clerical work and professional services. He discusses how artificial intelligence, combined with big data, is automating traditional white collar jobs. He says computer technologies are changing the types of jobs available, describing how jobs such as bookkeeping and clerical work, which typically provided “middle-class pay” have often disappeared whilst both high paid creative jobs and low paid, low-skill jobs have proliferated rapidly. This is known as the “hollowing out” of the middle class.

Like the Economist, Rotman is worried by the idea that technology will increase the income gap between technologically savvy people and everybody else. He concludes: “in the race against the machine, some are likely to win while many others lose”.

production line illustration 2

Automation will enrich us

“It is not that machines will take jobs but that they will do so too slowly” – David Willets, former UK minister of state (Conservative party).

Writing in the Financial Times in November 2015, David Willets, former UK minister of state for universities and science, took an unusual position: “It is not that machines will take jobs but that they will do so too slowly”. Willets was responding to Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, who has warned 15 million jobs in Britain are at risk from automation.

Willets accepts that some jobs will disappear, and that others will change radically, but he thinks that the overall number of people in work will keep on growing. When Willets says robots will take jobs too slowly, he means that “robots will not be able to take them [jobs] fast enough as human workers retire”.

He also thinks that highly educated people will enjoy greater sustained income growth because they are better equipped to adapt to technological change. This is a bold statement because it goes against a lot of current thinking which argues exactly the opposite: that automation technology is currently making its most rapid advances in eliminating higher skilled jobs.

As a politician, Willets wants to create a positive image of a technologically-based economy, and the picture he paints is alluring. He says old industrial towns grew around natural resources – like coalfields or water supplies. He contrasts this with new ‘industrial’ towns and cities which, are emerging around universities and research institutes instead. He believes any disruption in the labour market will be more than made up for as technological advances deliver new products and cheaper consumer goods.

Willets concludes that the problem with robots is that the private sector has been too slow to adapt. He says the potential of robots can only be unleashed when robots are used more flexibly, and people see them as colleagues not competitors.

“There is an astonishing mismatch between our fear of automation and the reality so far” – Tim Harford, the undercover economist.

Another prominent commentator, Tim Harford (better known as ‘the undercover economist’), has also written about what he calls “The myth of the robot job-ocalypse“. Harford believes fears surrounding automation are misplaced, and that historically they always have been.

He opens his article with a quote from Time magazine; “The number of jobs lost to more efficient machines is only part of the problem… In the past, new industries hired far more people than those they put out of business. But this is not true of many of today’s new industries.”

The quote is of interest because it dates from 1961, which illustrates Harford’s point nicely

Harford says the idea that robots are stealing jobs is only “superficially plausible”, and he subjects the idea to a simple economic test. He said “The usual measure of productivity is output per hour worked – by a human”. Harford believes that, because robots produce economic output without using human labour, a sudden increase in robot workers would cause a sudden productivity acceleration. Because productivity in many developed countries, such as the UK, has been very low over the last few years, Harford is convinced that robots are not stealing jobs.

It is most interesting to see Harford turn to productivity statistics to prove his point because Rotman in MIT review cited productivity statistics to prove the exact opposite point. As Rotman acknowledged, economists can disagree about productivity because there are so many different ways to measure it.

Harford believes that robots have become a scapegoat for economic problems that were really caused by others such as bankers and politicians. Concluding, he said; “In an age peppered with economic disappointments, the worst has been the stubborn failure of the robots to take our jobs”.

The never-ending debate

The debate about technology stealing jobs first achieved prominence with the Luddites’ destruction of industrial machinery in the late 18th century, but it is likely people began talking about it well before then.

The problem is that historical evidence is never enough. Using historical data we can prove that technology has always created far more jobs than it has destroyed. Yet, as The Economist said, “Things can change”. Things can always change. That’s why this debate is unlikely ever to end.

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Joseph Walker

Joseph Walker