The job market has always feared technological change even as it has embraced it. Industrial manufacturing upset artisan craftsmanship. Google search and the internet upset libraries. Each successive change brought greater efficiency and productivity while threatening the livelihood of those who worked in the industry. At the end of the day, many jobs were lost, but artisan craftsman and libraries still exist and profit, and many new jobs were created.
Today, the latest technological concerns of the job market are automation, robotics and AI. What happens to our jobs when software or robots can do them for us? Where do those wages go, and what happens to those workers? If jobs become completely automated, how do people earn a living?
The reason why people are so concerned today is that this is the first technological advance that can perform tasks that previously only humans could do. It’s no longer the case that people are using a new technology to boost production and efficiency. Today, technology is replacing people altogether.
For example, Germany’s Dusseldorf airport now has a robot valet that can park the car for you. San Francisco introduced a fully automated restaurant called Eatsa to its foodie scene in 2015. There’s even a good chance that you’re reading stories written by robots online now. In an often cited 2013 study, University of Oxford estimated that 47% of US jobs could be automated by 2033.
Other estimates are less extreme, but even if we accept Oxford’s study to be true, it’s important to note that for every job lost to a robot or software, other jobs are created or maintained through the need to build, train, and repair those technologies. We won’t live in a fully automated world in our lifetime, and people will still need to work. Automation only occurs through machine learning, which takes human input and time. At the moment, the only jobs we are close to automating are those who handle repetitive tasks, which makes up a large portion to be sure, but not the entire job market.
Should these repetitive jobs be automated?
Let’s take a closer look at an example to see what would happen if they were. Interestingly enough, the first industry to succumb to automation will likely be the trucking industry. Self-driving cars are already being tested by major companies, including Google, Apple, Ford, and Tesla, and their arrival is only a matter of time. In the US, there are currently 8.7 million trucking-related jobs, and many millions more related to the supporting infrastructure, from restaurants to road upkeep to hotels and truck stops. With the advent of self-driving trucks, the vast majority of those jobs will be simply gone, so what does the economy gain?
Self-driving trucks will be faster. They don’t need to sleep, rest, or eat, and can run all hours of the day and night. They will be cheaper: businesses don’t have to pay driver salaries, health insurance, and the aforementioned speed will increase operating efficiency. Self-driving trucks could also tail each other for better fuel consumption and reduce wind-resistance. Perhaps most importantly of all, they will be safer. There were over 35,000 traffic-related deaths in the US in 2015, and almost all of those were caused by driver error. Self-driving trucks would eliminate up to 4,000 deaths every year, and if every vehicle was self-piloting, fatalities would drop to almost zero. If truck driving is automated, the national economy benefits from safer roads, faster transport, and improved production and efficiency.
Are these benefits worth the loss of millions of jobs?
In short, yes. The most important thing to remember is that whenever technology destroys jobs, it creates new ones elsewhere. As Rachel Nuwer writes for BBC, “for all the career doors technology shuts, there will also be a wave of new professional paths for people to create and explore. Just as some of today’s jobs — social media community manager, app designer, green funeral director — would have been impossible to imagine in 1995, we cannot definitively predict what new types of work will emerge in the future.” The future for ex-truck drivers could be repairing the very trucks they used to cross the country with or perhaps it will be in some new developing field, whether a committee dedicated to increasing a company’s diversity or a marketing specialist that handles live-video streaming.
The question ‘should our jobs become completely automated’ is largely irrelevant because they will be automated whether we like it or not. The capitalist market will inevitably push development in that direction, and that’s not a bad thing. In the course of history, new technology has largely brought about good. Rather, we should embrace this automation, and instead be asking ‘how can we prepare and educate those who lose their jobs to machines’ and mitigate job loss by ushering them into the new job openings inevitably created by this technology.