Is it time to bow to our robot overlords? Last week analysts at Morgan Stanley, using data from an Oxford University study, predicted that nearly half of U.S. jobs will be replaced by robots over the next two decades. Ouch. Maybe we should build a wall.
Cars that drive themselves? Waiters you don’t need to pay (or tip)? Self-folding clothes? Are we headed toward a post-job future? Signs are certainly there. Abundant Robotics, a company spun from the same Stanford Research Institute that brought us the mouse and networked computing, has begun testing a robot that picks apples. Red Delicious, not iPhones. Napa Valley vineyards are using vision systems to sort grapes.
According to a 2013 Stanford University study, some manufacturing robots now cost the equivalent of about $4 an hour—and they keep getting cheaper . . . and better. This month scientists at MIT have sampled a silicon chip-based LIDAR—light detection and ranging—like radar but much higher resolution, though it covers a shorter distance.
The Tesla Model S currently uses one radar sensor and one front-facing camera as vision for its Autopilot. Neither, sadly, picked out a white tractor trailer against a bright sky before a May 7 collision that killed a Tesla driver. LIDAR would. Current LIDAR can cost up to $70,000. The new chip? Maybe $10. At that price, they’ll probably be standard in every new car, “self-driving” or not.
And now we have thinking robots. Editors at the Associated Press claim robots write thousands of articles a year for them. So it’s over? The robots win? This certainly fits a certain world view for a bigger welfare state and universal basic income and other services to coddle displaced workers. See the May 26 Fortune magazine article “What Governments Can Do When Robots Take Our Jobs.”
But not so fast. The arena of prognostications is littered with the wrecked utopian dreams of leisure living—recall geodesic domes—and Skynet nightmares of roving robot armies. Both are bunk. Instead this is progress.
Technology always creates more jobs than it destroys. JFK worried how to “maintain full employment at a time when automation . . . is replacing men.” Employment was 55 million in 1962. It’s 144 million today. We’ve come a long way, baby.
This time will be no different. Steam engines destroyed jobs—OK, mostly for horse handlers—but enabled an explosion of manufactories, never imagined jobs and the Industrial Revolution. Cars killed trolleys but enabled hundreds of millions of new jobs. Vacuums and washing machines destroyed jobs for “domestic engineers” (though I will never admit to knowing how to operate either) but freed women to enter the much more productive paid workforce. Computers killed jobs for those with rulers and exacto knives who were laying out magazines or constructing physical spreadsheets. Now media and Wall Street don’t exist without Microsoft Office. In each case, technology augments humans, rather than replaces them.
Even Chinese workers shouldn’t fear robots. The coming global demand for manufactured goods will swamp a robot-deprived manufacturing economy. Robots will solve China’s looming logistic problems.
Simply put, jobs that robots can replace are not good jobs in the first place. As humans, we climb up the rungs of drudgery—physically tasking or mind-numbing jobs—to jobs that use what got us to the top of the food chain, our brains.
Every cycle, capital seeks to destroy low-productivity jobs. Like Lucille Ball wrapping chocolates on an assembly line. Or tellers. Wait, check that; more tellers today are doing higher-end banking tasks now that low-level cash dispensing is handled by ATMs. Travel agents are gone, but tour packagers proliferate. Certainly services will be next to see automation. Take doctors, lawyers, investment bankers . . . please.
But it’s not true. McKinsey & Co. published research last fall suggesting 45% of “the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated” using existing technology. But, and here’s the punch line, less that 5% of “occupations can be entirely automated.” Maybe a third or more of activities within jobs can be automated. That’s the good news. Workers are augmented, not replaced. Salesmen with Google Maps, realtors with 3-D home views, carpenters with laser tape measures. Doctors doing robot assisted minimally invasive surgery. Plumbers with . . . OK, plumbers have the most job security in the world.
Yes, some people are left behind. But as society gets wealthier, we can help them catch up. We need to get our education system right, teach the fundamentals of computer science much earlier, and provide continuing education on how to adapt to changing technology and adopt these new tools. I can think of a dozen community-college courses besides French literature to assist displaced workers. Some could even be taught by robots.
Doing more with less is what drives progress and societal wealth. We all benefit by the investment of the savings into higher productivity activities, like immunotherapy, drones or even finding Pokémon (entertainment too can become more productive). These will all create new and maybe even better jobs.
Robots are coming. Don’t worry, be happy. It’s the path to growth and higher living standards. As a postscript, actor Kenny Baker recently passed away. He was in the original “Star Wars” movies—the guy inside the robot R2-D2. A human augmenting a robot. But that’s in a galaxy far far away and as big a fiction as robots stealing all of our jobs.