Why I’m Not Worried About Robots

Automation and jobs.

June 7, 2016

Google “robots taking our jobs” and you will get 10.3 million hits.

A series of terrific books (such as Rise of the Robots, The Second Machine Age, and The Industries of the Future (can you share other titles?), have rode the wave (and encouraged) our worries about automation and jobs.

Who isn’t worried about driverless cars and truckerless trucks?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 233,700 taxi and chauffeur drivers. At last count, Uber has 160,000 active drivers. What will happen to all these people who make their living driving when cars drive themselves?

A recent Medium article argued that Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck. The author of this article worries about what will happen to the 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. when trucks become autonomous.

And of course, the concern is not limited to transportation. The new union card for technology and society thought leaders seems to be an active worry that robots will displace the bulk of work now done by people. 

Robots will teach our children (including our emerging adult college students), care for our elderly, mow our lawns, prepare our taxes, read our scans, resurface our ice rinks, and write our blog posts (the last one will certainly be a welcome improvement).

The thing is - the more I think about the robots taking our jobs story - the less that I buy it.

Not that I don’t think that automation will not replace much of the current work that we all do. It will. It is.

What I don’t buy is that rise of the robots will mean the end of our jobs. 

We will find other things to do. We will find better things to do. 

Assuming that we don’t give up on educating our population, investing in an infrastructure and an environment where people can thrive, and taking care of the least fortunate amongst us (all admittedly open questions) - I think that we will be just fine.

I might think that the government should have a larger role in the provisioning of services and the redistribution of income than you do (we can argue about that). 

And even though the mixed economy that undergirds our prosperity is under attack (and has been for a while now - read Hacker and Pierson’s persuasive book American Amnesia on this topic), I doubt that our country will completely retreat into privatization.

You might think that we have an employment problem. I’m more likely to think that we have a wage problem. (Yes, I support the $15 minimum wage - progressive taxation etc. etc.). 

We can argue about the benefits and costs of wage laws, unionization, and worker protections - but these are arguments about politics, not about technology.

What we face are political, not technological, problems - and it will be our political (policy and governance) choices that shape our future.

Technology will take all the jobs only if we fail to create new jobs.

Technology will displace work only if we fail to prepare the people to do new types of jobs. (Preparation best found at a liberal arts institution - just saying).

Adaptive online learning platforms delivered at scale will only replace our educators if we choose not to care about the quality of education. (If we care about education, we will pair better compensated educators with emerging technologies).

The history of technology is a story of local winners and losers (yes, groups, people and whole occupations are displaced), and of macro (societal level) progress.

We are better off as a society for the fact that less than 2 percent of our people grow our food (down from 64 percent in 1850), a trend (given by the automation and rising productivity of farming) that is little consolation to all the farmers that lost their livelihoods over the past century.

What examples do you have of technology eliminating whole occupations, while also driving overall economic growth and well-being? 

If you are worried about robots taking our jobs, then fight for adequate funding for your public institutions of higher learning.

If you are concerned with the misguided efforts of politicians and venture capitalists to bring the practices and values of Uber to higher education, then do everything that you can to support our educators (including and especially our adjunct and contingent educators).

If you are worried that your kids will not be able to find a job in the age of the robots, then you should encourage your kid to attend a liberal arts institution - one where the emphasis is on creativity, risk taking, writing, communications, collaborations, problem solving, and leadership.

The best way to inoculate both ourselves, and our society, from negative technological disruptions is to invest in human capital.

Are you worried about the robots?

What are you worried about?



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