Almost 4 million US workers could eventually be displaced by autonomous vehicles, according to a US Department of Commerce report. While the report, “The Employment Impact of Autonomous Vehicles,” does not offer a firm timeline for job losses, it seems to be the latest evidence of a future in which traditionally secure jobs are threatened by automation. US labor unions have responded by lobbying to restrict the number of self-driving trucks allowed on the roads.
New technologies will not only affect truck and taxi drivers. The World Economic Forum has predicted that about five million white collar office workers will see themselves replaced by AI and robotics in major economies between 2016 and 2020. Do we need to start preparing for a future in which there is far less demand for human work because most jobs can be done by robots, machines, and computers?
First, though, we should ask if this trend is really anything new because technology’s tendency to make traditional jobs obsolete is older than history.
The disruptive technologies of 10,000 BC
Twelve thousand years ago, the hot, new disruptive technology was farming. Farmers displaced traditional hunter-gatherer societies by leveraging economies of scale to produce food far more efficiently. The tribe that spent their life skillfully hunting animals and gathering berries in the forest was outcompeted by the early adopter tribe that toiled growing crops and herding cattle – mainly because farming scaled up more efficiently.
The effects went much further than that, though. The revolutionary new technology of agriculture shaped and molded society and culture in many ways – some good and some, arguably, not so good. For example, farming drew people together into increasingly large fixed settlements, and the greater efficiency and pooled labor gave some of those people more free time to think about issues that were not essential to their day-to-day survival, such as science, art, and commerce. Without making any value judgments, we could at least say that the technological upheaval of farming was the foundation of our modern society, and our modern lives would not be possible in a scattered hunter-gatherer culture.
The trend of new technology making old ways of life untenable continued with industrialization. For several decades from the late 1790’s, mobs of European textile workers periodically rose up to smash weaving machines that they believed made their skills obsolete. That movement’s name, “The Luddites,” is now synonymous with a conservative, anti-technology stance.
In more modern times, technology has continued to encroach on the territory of skilled human workers in almost every field. Aircraft autopilots have reduced the minimum number of cockpit crew from three to two. Small companies now use Google Translate as a free substitute for a human translator (sometimes unwisely).
A simplistic view of automation might be that it only destroys jobs. But advocates of automation would say the truth is more nuanced: a reduction in aircraft cockpit crew reduces transport and cargo costs, encouraging tourism and trade; free translation facilitates international business links.
To take another example, increasingly sophisticated machines are inevitably replacing humans on mobile phone production lines. In 2016, iPhone manufacturer, Foxconn, reportedly replaced 60,000 workers with robots at one Chinese factory alone.
However, optimists might say, such automation makes low-cost mobile phones possible, and that creates a huge and entirely new market for more creative and knowledge-intensive work, such as app development, new mobile services, even theme design, and customization. Arguably, those new jobs may be more enjoyable, from the worker’s point of view, than traditional jobs. Some of the displaced phone factory workers might see things differently, of course.
The decline of the working day
Although we can see that new technology creates jobs as well as removing them, statistics do show that as economies develop, people work less than they used to. Average weekly working hours in Western Europe have fallen steadily — from approximately 65 hours in 1870 to below 40 hours today.
As this trend continues, it seems that we will need to prepare for a society where people do less work, rather than no work. In fact, this is already evidenced by the growth in leisure activities during the past few generations, and by the more recent growth in lifestyles that blur the boundaries between work and personal life — with people making a living (or at least earning money) as Airbnb hosts, Uber and Lyft drivers, Etsy and eBay sellers, self-published Amazon authors or iTunes musicians, and so on.
As for the predictions of mass displacements of skilled workers by sophisticated automation and AI, they remain somewhat hazy. For example, the US Department of Commerce report cited at the beginning of this article offered no firm prediction for the development of the fully autonomous vehicles that could threaten 4 million US jobs, vaguely suggesting that this might happen in “perhaps in ten or more years”. And earlier this year, the CEO of the Toyota Research Institute was similarly downbeat, saying that, contrary to optimistic predictions from other automakers, fully autonomous driving is “nowhere near close”.
So, is the sky really falling — will robots make humans obsolete? It’s hard to say at this point, but if history is any teacher, the benefits to society will outweigh the costs.
Rudy Ramos is the project manager for the Technical Content Marketing team at Mouser Electronics and holds an MBA from Keller Graduate School of Management. He has over 30 years of professional, technical and managerial experience managing complex, time-critical projects and programs in various industries including semiconductor, marketing, manufacturing, and military. Previously, Rudy worked for National Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, and his entrepreneur silk screening business.