The Robots are Coming

In his classic 1952 novel Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut envisaged a future in which automation had eliminated the vast majority of jobs.   Society became divided between the engineers and managers who built and controlled the machines and the bulk of society which was jobless and purposeless. 

Dystopian visions like this are nothing new of course:  Luddites protested against the implementation of the first factory automation during the Industrial Revolution and since then, there have been continuous predictions that machines are going to render human workers obsolete.  Such predictions have always been misguided, and each revolution in automation created as many new and better jobs than it destroyed.  For instance, while the computer revolution rendered typists obsolete, it created new jobs in programming, network administration, and systems management.  Likewise, despite the ability of Excel to automate a huge quantity of accounting tasks there seem to be more accountants than ever, able to perform more sophisticated analyses.

However, even though previous predictions of doom have been misplaced, there is increasing concern about the impact of the latest generation of automation on the nature of work and the prospects for universal employment in the future.   In particular, while everyone has anticipated that robots will eventually dominate the traditional assembly line, we’re increasingly seeing automation disrupt jobs that were long considered to require human judgment or abilities.  

As robots replaced humans in factories, many low-skill jobs shifted to the service sector in restaurants and retail.  But today many chain restaurants are introducing table-based serving systems such as Ziosk and ElaCarte.  Humans still bring orders to the table, though in China there are experiments in fully automated restaurants using robotic delivery systems.  Check-in services in hotels and airports are also becoming increasingly handled by computer-based kiosks.

At the same time, we are seeing machine-learning techniques intruding into the domain of the skilled professional. Artificial intelligence programs are now able to generate text for articles such as obituaries, sporting results, and financial summaries.   Text analysis tools can increasingly be used reduce the need for paralegals – these tools can analyze contracts and use algorithms to determine correctness or identify anomalies.

And, of course, in medicine, automated diagnostic tools reduce the demand for triage nurses, while automated tools for dispensing medicines are emerging.

Professions that involve driving motor vehicles seem particularly vulnerable.  While self-driving cars are still an oddity, it seems likely that when accepted, they will rapidly replace taxi and truck drivers.  The ability summon a self-driving car using an Uber-style application would almost certainly provide a better and cheaper experience.

Many jobs do remain outside the scope of automation – those that involve fine-grained sensorimotor skills for instance, seem to be beyond our technical capabilities at the moment.   

It’s possible to take extremely optimistic or pessimistic views from these trends.  In Abundance, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler argue that we are entering an “end of scarcity” era of economics in which for the first time in human history, supply will always outpace demand.  Automation will be able to provide enough to meet the material needs of every human being.  A utopian “post money” society will result.

The alternative pessimistic view argues that in a purely capitalist society the benefits of automation will flow only to those that own the means of production.  The consequences will be an ever-increasing inequality which will causes a net decrease in human happiness and creates massive unrest.

Others argue that there will be new jobs created as a consequence of this new automation revolution.  We just can’t imagine what those jobs will be, any more than someone in the 1950s could have anticipated the internet.  It’s true that we can’t anticipate all the consequences of new technology and that we can’t turn back the clock.  But it’s also true that we can shape the future, and that policy makers need to ensure that automation doesn’t lead to Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian – but all too feasible – future.