It’s one more quiet morning on Main Street, sometime in the 2030s. Outside, the only noise is the hum of driverless cars and the whir of delivery drones overhead. In the hotel, a robot concierge waits to carry the bags; in the supermarket, shoppers choose from robot-stacked shelves. There’s no bustle at the factory gate, or outside the office blocks. But at the corner gathers a huddle of the town’s unemployed, robbed of their jobs and self-respect by the smart technology that was supposed to enhance their lives.
Welcome to the coming dystopia. Gone are the days when robots’ roles were confined to mindless manufacturing tasks. Now they’re busy in a host of jobs from babysitting to routine hospital operations to checking legal paperwork or insurance claims. Productivity has soared, but employment has plunged. Mankind’s hubris in developing artificial intelligence (AI) has invited a terrible nemesis.
But before despairing, try the alternative vision. All that smart technology means no more grunt, soul-destroying labor. Most people are still employed, but working fewer hours on new jobs spawned by AI and robotics. Meanwhile, a slew of devices are on hand to help care for the elderly, to do the messy business of raising crops or to collect the garbage. The automated future has arrived — and it works for all.
Whether the technological revolution will mean downfall or deliverance for humanity sharply divides opinion. Pessimists warn of disaster as robot technology invades everyday life at an ever-increasing speed. Optimists see a dawning age of opportunity and leisure as automation frees us from drudgery.
For now, it’s the pessimists who are grabbing much of the attention, helped by apocalyptic forecasts that thrill the media. In the worst-case scenario, it’s not just employment but mankind itself that could face extinction, according to physicist and author Stephen Hawking. “One can imagine [AI] outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders and developing weapons we cannot even understand.”
Barely a day goes by without new stories to stoke public concern. How about the bedmaking robots in Singapore hospitals, the burger-flipping robots in California, the marimba-playing robots at an American university that write their own tunes or the robot grape pickers in French vineyards? Welcome or not, the so-called fourth industrial revolution has more advance publicity than any of its predecessors.
At very least, say the gloom-mongers, automation could wipe out jobs by the millions. One much-cited study by academics at Oxford University in 2013 found that 47 percent of all jobs in the United States could be at risk from digitalization. President Barack Obama used his farewell address last January to warn that automation posed a greater threat to employment than globalization. “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”
He has a point. Unlike earlier revolutions, this one won’t spare the educated. Back in the 19th century, the fear of automation that drove England’s Luddites to smash newfangled machinery in cotton mills was limited to the working class. These days it doesn’t matter if you are a radiologist, a professional cellist or a bookkeeper; there are robots or programs that can match your skills, at least to some degree. In the words of Jerry Kaplan, a computer scientists at Stanford University: Automation today is “blind to the color of your collar.”
As some office workers are already discovering. Take the case of Japan’s Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance. Earlier this year, more than 30 employees were laid off and replaced by an AI system. Based on IBM’s Watson Explorer, the robot staffer is capable of calculating payouts to policyholders without any help from pesky mortals; according to its creators, it possesses “cognitive technology that can think like a human.” That sends shivers through the industry. With such wizardry available, why should any firm bother with strike-prone, fallible human employees who want holidays, join unions and won’t work through the night?
Especially troubling to some is the pace of change. It took generations for the full effects of, say, steam power to be felt across society in the first Industrial Revolution. Now the wilder dreams of the last decade are fast becoming today’s reality. Google’s driverless cars can already be seen on the streets of Mountain View, California; self-driving tractors work the fields; and a New Zealand firm last year made the world’s first pizza delivery by drone.
But it will take much more to convince the optimists of a coming catastrophe. After all, the latest panic fits an ancient pattern. Back in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I denied an English inventor the patent for a knitting machine for fear of its impact on the jobs of “unprotected young maidens.” Later alarms involved a host of innovations from the steam engine and the motor car to electricity and the computer. In the 1960s, leading U.S. economists warned that millions of jobs were threatened by what they called a “cybernation revolution.” Instead, we’ve seen an inexorable increase in employment, productivity and standard of living.
Indeed, even in manufacturing, there is no clear link between the appearance of C-3PO on the production line and plunging employment figures. German industry, for example, uses three times as many working robots per hour than America. But it lost only 19 percent of its manufacturing jobs in the last 15 years, compared with 33 percent in the U.S. Indeed, in some of the most automated sectors — think carmaking, for exam-ple — German employment actually rose.
If that seems paradoxical, there’s one easy explanation. Automation means greater efficiency, and that brings higher profits for companies to invest in expansion. In turn, those thriving businesses need extra staff to expand. It’s a virtuous cycle that just keep spinning, as historians can demonstrate: Many more weavers were employed after the Industrial Revo-lution transformed the business.
And what was true for the pioneering industrialists of the 19th century remains true today. Amazon, recognized as a world leader for workplace robotics, added an extra 100,000 people to its U.S. payroll last year. In short, automation has destroyed some jobs, but has created more. Looking at the great sweep of history, scholars talk of the “Luddite fallacy.”
True, there have been painful upheavals, including the almost complete disappearance of some occupations, such as blacksmiths and typesetters. At the start of the last century, 38 percent of Germans earned their living from agriculture. Today, the figure is less than 2 percent. But rural Germany doesn’t teem with jobless farmworkers. They have found work elsewhere, often making products undreamed of by their forefathers, such as cars or airplanes.
Quite likely, say the optimists, that pattern will now repeat itself as an even more automated economy develops. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which groups the world’s most advanced economies, reckons that 65 percent of today’s children will find themselves working in jobs that have not yet emerged.
And as demand for some skills disappears, other skills will be increasingly needed — even in the same field of work. Remember the legion of bookkeepers that once staffed company finance departments? Since 1985, the total number has fallen by almost half in the U.S., to barely a million, their role stolen by the computer. Yet the number of accountants and auditors, capable of running the numbers through the software and analyzing the data, has grown by 1.8 million.
Besides, the hard-to-love robot could be just the friend that many developed societies now need. With aging populations and dwindling workforces, they will want all the help that technology can offer. By 2050, for example, there will be 15 percent fewer Japanese than today, a precipitous decline that helps explain why the country is now midway through a drive to triple the size of the domestic market for robots to $22 billion by 2020.
But even the robots’ keenest champions admit that their new importance can mean mass dislocation in the short term. Finding work, for example, for the estimated 3 million Americans at risk of redundancy as driverless trucks and cars take to the road will represent a serious challenge. That’s why governments are increasingly looking at ways to reskill the labor force and to educate children so they can more easily adapt to change.
A smooth transition to the automated future certainly won’t come cheap. The European Parliament this year debated a tax on robots to raise money for the retraining of workers who lose their jobs to automation (see box). The billionaire founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, has suggested that governments may even need to pay out a universal basic wage to avoid mass poverty while the economy readjusts.
What’s encouraging is the public response. A recent survey by consulting firm Accenture found a general awareness of the likely upheavals in technology and the workplace ahead. An overwhelming 84 percent of respondents found the prospect “exciting” rather than daunting. Back in the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted technology would deliver a 15-hour working week for his grandchildren. Today, even as they’re immersed in technology, his grandchildren are busier than ever. Will that more leisurely future finally arrive? Maybe an intelligent robot will soon have the answer.
William Underhill is a senior writer at Handelsblatt Global Magazine.