There’s no doubt about it, robots will soon begin to play larger and larger roles in the everyday workforce, but that’s not to say humans will become underlings.
In 2013 the University of Oxford published a study on the prospects of the future job market once the AI revolution hits. The results stunned the public as they were warned that upward of 47% of jobs in the US were at risk of automation replacement in the next twenty years. This study was the catalyst for much of the technophobia surrounding the topic of robotics in the workplace; and yet analyses undertaken since have proven there’s no need to start building the bunkers just yet…
The University of Oxford study has been heavily criticised since its release. Experts site the study’s incorrect assumptions surrounding the elasticity of the workplace in the face of automation, problematic analysis of results, and misleading conclusions as the main contributors to the research’s fault. After the study’s publication in 2013, the “robots will steal our jobs” fear exploded, and anxiety was at its height. It was not until 2016, when McKinsey & Company published their own research, that such anxieties were quelled. McKinsey & Company’s results suggested that while a large number of jobs will see certain duties relegated to AI, only around 5% of jobs will be completely automated in upcoming decades.
Technophobia, especially about the manner in which automation will effect our jobs, is nothing new. Throughout history we have been scared that technological innovation will jeopardise our way of life, and we have consistently been wrong in our assertions that automation will spell disaster for the human workforce.
In fact, the Industrial Revolution serves as a close model by which we can measure our own fears and expectations surrounding the introduction of new automated processes to the workplace. The resulting changes that occurred, and the cultural shifts that emerged because of them, can calm anxieties surrounding our own future.
REDUCING THE WORK WEEK
While it’s unlikely that we’ll immediately revert to a dramatically shorter work week, automation speeds work processes considerably. Before the Industrial Revolution, an average work week spanned around 60 hours and after automated improvements were made this was reduced to the standard 40 hour week. The increased speed at which tasks will be completed can free up time for a few more days off, or allow for extra productivity. This may not sound appealing if a worker is paid hourly, but that’s where the second possible benefit comes into play.
In 1589, William Lee designed an automated knitting machine. The design was initially reviled, even by Queen Elizabeth herself, for its potential threat to a workforce in need of its industry. Nevertheless, once the machinery was installed, loom worker wages increased significantly once parts of their jobs required automation. Suddenly the job required skills in using and maintaining the equipment, and those willing to learn those new skills on the job profited immensely. Plus, with lowered costs of production, employers were able to pay their workforce a higher wage for their skilled labour. Learning the skills necessary to work with these machines is invaluable in reaping the rewards of the next revolution.
Richard Arkwright’s cotton spinning machinery was initially feared for its potential to destroy a large number of weaving and spinning jobs, however after its implementation, the number of employed spinners and weavers increased by around 3,900%! The invention lowered costs of production which in turn lowered the price of goods. Once clothing and cotton were no longer a luxury, consumption and demand increased which, in turn, required an increase in employees.
Not only does the increased demand which comes after a reduction in the price of goods mean new jobs, but the technologies employed to keep these costs down create jobs in themselves. AI analysis, reporting, development, teaching, supervision, and maintenance will all be required to keep the robot revolution moving, and an untold number of new technologies will require further skills in the future.
WHAT DOES AUTOMATION LOOK LIKE IN THE FUTURE?
We can glean an idea of general trends we might be witness to from these historical events, but there’s no way to tell how our modern culture will react to automation. Looking back on the impact robotics and machinery have had in the past gives us some insight into the potential trajectory of our working lives in the future, but there are more potential benefits of automation on the horizon.
Once we’re firmly in the realm of the robot, MIT labour economist David Autor suggests that goods and services that can only be provided by humans will increase significantly in value. Handmade and artisanal goods will excel, and human services like teaching may see increased pay.
With automation taking over the aspects of work that do not require human interaction to complete, workers can focus energies on other aspects of their work. A CEO, for example, can do a lot more when their reports and analysis are done by a machine, and doctors and nurses can spend more time with each patient with paperwork out of the way.
The truth of the matter is that we just don’t know what will happen when automation fully hits the workforce. What we do know, however, is that robots and machines have provided us with the workforce and processes we have today, without the apocalypse.