Higher Ed and “Rise of the Robots”

How should we respond to a future of few jobs?

June 3, 2015
Published in May of 2015.
Wherever I go I play a little game in my head. I look at the jobs that people are doing around me, and I ask myself, “will a robot being doing that job in the future?” 
If you believe Martin Ford, that job that will be replaced by a robot just might be your own
The Rise of the Robots is an excellent book. Fair-minded, balanced, well-researched, and fully thought through. Ford is not interested in finding evidence to support his personal theories and pre-formed views of the future. Rather, Ford takes his best shot at trying to figure out what the confluence of exponentially increasing computing power and vastly improved robotics technology (sensors, processing, AI) will mean for the future of paid human employment.
Ford sifts through all the evidence on the future of work and technology with a fluency in technology, economics, and labor market economics that is often breathtaking. The fact that Ford ends up more pessimistic than he began in thinking about the future viability of an economy built on wages and consumption should give us all pause.  
The basic question we all need to address is - what will our society do if automation become widespread and cheap enough to replace existing jobs at a faster rate than new jobs can be created?  
Jobs that involve driving are one example of this potential future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 1.7 million American’s employed as heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, 1.3 million as delivery truck drivers, about 650,000 as bus drivers, and 230,000 taxi drivers and chauffeurs. What happens when these almost 4 million jobs can be replaced by driverless trucks and cars? 
Ford points out that the problem is not technological, as the Google self-driving car project is proving, but legal and cultural. Eventually, our views and our laws will catch up with the technology. Self-driving trucks and cars will be immeasurably safer than people driven trucks and cars, as well as cheaper.
If you can imagine a future of no truck drivers, cabbies, or bus drivers - what else can you envision? Self-service gas pumps have replaced (except in New Jersey and Oregon) gas station attendants.  Kiosks have largely replaced airline ticketing agents. ATMs have replaced bank tellers. The web has replaced travel agents. Netflix replaces all those Blockbuster and video store employees. Visit a modern auto factory or semiconductor fabricator and you will only see a few people tending to all the machines. What’s next?
It also is not clear that the economy will create large numbers of high paying creative jobs. When Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion, the mobile messaging startup only had 55 employees. 
Creative organizations, be they universities or software developers, don’t actually employ that many people. By contrast, go visit your local Applebee’s Restaurant. You will see a fairly large number of wait staff, cooks, bus boys, and kitchen staff.  Most of these jobs pay a comparatively low wage - at least in comparison to the social media specialists, web architects, and event planners that the new economy is supposed to be creating.
A possible future where robots replace most jobs is a possible future that higher ed should be grappling with. How would this future change what we teach, and how we teach it?  What sorts of people could we educate that would be robot proof?  
How do personalized adaptive learning platforms and online learning at scale fit into this “few jobs” future scenario that Ford explores? 
What do you think societies response should be if automation replaces jobs faster than they can be created?
What are you reading?


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