Does a Robot Want Your Job?

Is Robby the Robot casting a covetous eye on your job?  Or on the jobs of your friends, colleagues, citizens and taxpayers?  A 2013 study by an Oxford University researcher forecast that as many as 47% of jobs in the United States were at risk of being automated out of existence in the future.  These are jobs with a lot of routine work in them that do not, on the other hand, require the soft skills of interaction with human beings.  

At first hearing, that’s a terrifying number, and one that is not restricted to America.  The equivalent figure for Britain is 35% and, for Japan, it is 49%.  Even in China, employment in manufacturing – the traditional target of automation – is in decline. 

So, will the last human being leaving the last place of employment please turn out the lights?  The robot overlords don’t need them. 

A More Nuanced View

The truth is that every technological revolution has wiped out whole categories of employment.  But every one has also created substantial economic growth, just as the current one is doing.  Here’s a generally unappreciated fact: when the economy grows, that money does not just disappear.  It is cycled back into the economy in the form of demand for new and better products and services.  That demand creates jobs, and on a national or global basis, we are all better off. 

The ATM or cash machine was supposed to make bank teller extinct.  What happened instead was that the number of full-time equivalent bank tellers grew.  ATMs made bank branches cheaper to operate, which led banks to open more of them.  Teller skills changed from routine cash-handling to non-routine marketing and customer service. 

Being better off as a nation means nothing if it is your job that disappears and you who struggles to find another. There is a case to be made that much of the political upheaval taking place in advanced economies is the result of our ignoring, for far too long, the suffering of people blindsided by relentless technology advance.  They are our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and when they are cast out of economic life, the health of our communities and nations suffer along with them. 

The answer is not to cast longing eyes back to the past but to redouble our efforts to build inclusive prosperity using the very tools that are causing all the disruption in the first place.  It is a tough challenge, and ICF’s co-founders tackle it in this informative conversation. 

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.

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