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Robot hysteria

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It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fault. Ever since The Terminator was released in 1984, humans have been afraid of robots taking over the planet. Hollywood continues to feed the paranoia about artificial intelligence with a diet of movies portraying robots as evil machines.

Filmmakers know that people are predisposed to fear what they do not understand. Sci-fi movies about the future invariably tap into current anxieties and play to our primeval fears. One fear is that we will be replaced by machines and this resonates with workers. Many of us worry that flesh and blood employees will one day be supplanted by silicon and binary robots.

Since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with technology. Artificial intelligence has taken this to a new level with claims that human labour is under threat. With regular monotony, we are told that humanity is on a path to a jobless future.

I do not subscribe to the popular view that human workers will become obsolete. Indeed, I believe that everyone reading this blog can expect to keep on labouring until retirement. Headlines trumpeting “a world without work” are alarmist and underscore the long-standing divide between technologists and economists.

This is borne out in a September 2016 study by University of Melbourne labour-market economist, Jeff Borland. Professor Borland accepts that the rise of robots makes for “a sexy story”. But his study - Are our jobs being taken by robots? - reveals that there is absolutely no evidence “that computerisation is decreasing the aggregate hours of work done by labour in Australia”.

Professor Borland acknowledges that “computerisation is changing the types of jobs being done by workers” but that its effect has been exaggerated. He states that “while computers may be having some impact on the Australian workplace, most claims about their impact are vastly over-stated”.

Professor Borland is not alone in rejecting the view that a workless future is inevitable. Fellow labour-economist, David Autor, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sings from the same songbook. In his paper, Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?, Professor Autor contends that the skills required for many tasks - “that people understand tacitly and accomplish effortlessly” - cannot be readily codified.

Professor Autor observes “that journalists and even expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities between automation and labor that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor”.

Another academic who believes that new technologies - such as artificial intelligence - are not the enemy of jobs is James Bessen, professor of economics at Boston University. His research shows that emerging technologies often create new and higher-paying jobs that previously didn’t exist - like social media managers.

Professor Bessen has found that automation can lead to the substitution of one occupation for another. For example, typesetting and compositor jobs in the US fell by about 100,000 during the 1980s. But from 1979 to 2007 the number of digital designers more than quadrupled to 800,000 due to the growth of desk top publishing.

So, while typesetters may no longer be in demand, graphic designers are and their increased numbers more than compensate for job losses elsewhere. Professor Bessen has uncovered other examples where technology was supposed to annihilate jobs, but the opposite occurred. His findings are summarised in his article: The Automation Paradox: When computers start doing the work of people, the need for people often increases.

One notable technologist who is on the right side of this emotive man-versus-machine debate is Steve Wozniak. The Apple co-founder is not worried that robots will become our overlords any time soon. In a CNBC article, Why robots won’t be taking our jobs for hundreds of years, Wozniak is quoted as saying:

This idea that computers could take over our jobs - because if they can think better, why have a CEO in a company? If a slow CEO costs you money, get rid of the CEO and have computers running the whole world – that’s a theory. And I don’t buy into it.

Wozniak is not losing sleep over humans becoming a “secondary species to machines” and neither am I. In my opinion, artificial intelligence should be seen as complementary to human expertise and not in competition with human endeavour.

It is important to make the distinction that technology eliminates jobs, not work. Technology made the job of buggy maker obsolete but created work for automobile manufacturers. While technology will continue to redefine work, it will not make humans unnecessary.

Those who assert that sapient robots will give rise to a personless workforce are overreacting. The coming automation of jobs won’t play out as the doomsayers are predicting. The future of work is bright, not bleak, if we are prepared to change and constantly learn. It’s up to all of us to upskill and reskill ourselves to keep up with the new and exciting jobs of tomorrow.

Be assured that robots are not job snatchers, but work creators - in fact, the biggest work creators in world history, according to Forbes magazine. So, ignore the uninformed “robophobics” and make sure that you have the skills and capabilities necessary to thrive in a New Work Order.

Finally, in the words of Star Trek legend, Mr. Spock, live long and prosper. Or maybe I should have closed by paraphrasing the Stars Wars catchphrase - may the (work) force be with you. Unfortunately, I can’t decide which one to use, so I’ll end with The Terminator’s iconic line - I’ll be back (next week).


Paul J. Thomas, CEO


avatar Steve Fitts
It's fun to reflect on the number of automobile-manu facturing robots that have been made redundant recently.
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CEO Paul Thomas