Will Robots Replace All Workers?

Mainstream conservatives love to hold up immigration as a major source of job loss among working Americans. I am not familiar with the statistics they usually use to support this. But I say this with confidence: it is mostly utter baloney. It’s true that any given immigrant may compete with any given American worker for lower wages. But the vast majority of this is in low-paying menial work which many Americans do not bother to do anyway: working in the fields, scrubbing toilets, housecleaning, bussing tables, so on. Most Americans refuse to even consider doing these jobs.

There is a very real threat to the jobs of many middle-class and below Americans, but not from immigrants:

Over five million jobs will be lost by 2020 as a result of developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological change, according to World Economic Forum research.

About 7 million jobs will be lost and 2 million gained as a result of technological change in 15 major developed and emerging economies, WEF founder Klaus Schwab and managing board member Richard Samans said in “The Future of Jobs.” The findings are taken from a survey of 15 economies covering about 1.9 billion workers, or about 65 percent of the world’s total workforce.

“To prevent a worst-case scenario — technological change accompanied by talent shortages, mass unemployment and growing inequality — reskilling and upskilling of today’s workers will be critical,” the authors said. “It is simply not possible to weather the current technological revolution by waiting for the next generation’s workforce to become better prepared.”

…Administrative and office jobs will account for two-thirds of the losses, with “routine white-collar office functions at risk of being decimated,” and there will be gains in computer, mathematical, architecture and engineering-related fields. Women will be disproportionately hit by the changes because of their low participation in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

I have no doubt this is true: “Over five million jobs will be lost by 2020 due to artificial intelligence and robots.” I do not believe that genuine artificial intelligence is possible, but I do believe that computer programs will continue to get better and better. I have no doubt robotic technology will only improve. Robots will become more reliable and versatile.

The article goes on to say this: “Administrative and office jobs will account for two-thirds of the losses, with routine white-collar office functions at risk of being decimated.” This is resoundingly true. Any job that relies on computers will likely be done by computers within 10 to 20 years.

But here is the key thing to realize: this is a positive process. This process of computerization will lead to an across-the-board increase in quality of life for people worldwide.

Computers, for all their power, lack critical human elements: creativity, problem-solving, and the ability to make judgment. Computers are capable of amazing things, but everything ultimately boils down to math – 1’s and 0’s. This means that computers can be assigned repetitive, menial tasks, and they can dominate these jobs through sheer brute force. If a job can basically be reduced to a math equation and be done by a computer, then this is a good thing. Human labor is by-far the most versatile tool on the face of the earth; humans can create, innovate, and make judgment calls. If a machine can free up a human from a menial task to pursue something more useful, this is a good thing.

I once had a debate with some turkey who predicted that computerization of labor would ultimately lead to permanent mass unemployment across the world, leading to the great enrichment of a few business-owners at the expense of everyone else. This viewpoint is completely stupid, because it utterly ignores history. If this were true, then we’d all presently be unemployed by the technological advances that have already taken place. Refrigerators have replaced your local butcher; cars have replaced buggy drivers. By this line of logic, we’d already be well into the depths of employment apocalypse.

But that is not the case. The world is not a zero-sum place where there are only a set number of jobs to be had. When some jobs were replaced by machines or computers, other opportunities opened up. This is what gave rise to the service industry, starting on a large scale with the industrial revolution. Because machines and other technological advances were able to free up laborers from numerous menial tasks, those laborers became free to apply their unique human talents to other disciplines. This is partially why we have things like massage therapists and event planners at our disposal today, while they were not so available to the common man in the year 1700.

In addition, machines lower labor costs. This leads to lower prices for consumers. Mechanization coupled with mass production is what created the conditions for the existence of the middle-class. Believe it or not, basic household goods like steel kitchen knives were luxuries in the age before mass production, when a blacksmith would have to craft the knives from scratch. It is far cheaper to use a machine for this – cheaper for both the producer and the consumer. Now, you can buy a full set of high-quality kitchen knives for less than $30 on Amazon and they’ll be placed at your feet by the shipping company. We live like royalty, indeed.

This person I debated went as far as to declare that replacing workers with technology needs to be outlawed. This idea is stupid. They did not think through the implications of this. The first question to ask is this: would you prefer to go back to a stone-age living? I presume the answer is no. In that case, why enact this now? Why keep the advancements we already have if they replace a human laborer? Why should I be allowed to send an e-mail when I can use a mailman? Why should I be allowed to use a pacemaker when I can pay a guy to give me CPR 24 hours a day to keep my heart beating? The idea is patently absurd.

The other question to ask is this: “Workers will be unemployed at what price?” Whenever you hear someone talking about unemployment, this is always a good question to ask. Unemployed at what price? The person I debated claimed that computerization would lead to an employment apocalypse. Presumably, nobody would be working. But this is nonsense. At some price, these people can be employed in some capacity. It doesn’t matter in what capacity. People will decide what services they want or need, and the newly freed workers can change gears to service these needs for pay. Together, they can come to an employment agreement.

None but the severely disabled are totally unemployable. This is where family and charity come in.

At some price, a person can be employed.

CONCLUSION

Technological advancement is a positive thing. If a job is mundane enough to be done by a computer, then it should be done by a computer. That will free up the human worker to apply their talents to something that will improve everyone else’s lives and their own lives. Let the computer do the dirty work. Let the human apply their talent to a job that requires creativity, social interaction, and judgment.

I understand that losing a job stinks. I have never lost a job to a computer. I’m sure it feels no better than losing a job to another person. This is why it is vital for wage earners, whether white-collar or blue-collar, to stay at the top of their field. This will increase your chances of avoiding the ax when computerization creeps into your workplace. In some cases, such as an assembly line, the ax may be unavoidable. This is where you must cultivate your personal brand to a point where you can still sell your labor into other fields. Job-hunting is a competition like any other; having an edge will place you above the competition.

Or, you can go into a field where machine talents simply do not apply. This is where entrepreneurship and business enter the picture.

 

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