For a generation we have heard the call that the robots are taking over. Books, movies, pop culture all have inundated us with a dystopian nightmare scenario of robots gone awry. Thankfully, this is not an article about robot overlords but rather one of automation becoming more prevalent in our society every day. It does contain a bit of warning because the coming automation of our economy will have a major impact on our current human workforce, both positive and negative. This is more of a call to realization. As workers we should be cognizant of the changes that are coming over the next 10 years or so and we also need to make sure our governments, both state and federal, are preparing for automation.
Historically, almost every new age of technology has provided close to readymade jobs for the next workforce. Horse carriage artisans making wagon wheels were able to move over to assembly lines making cars in the factories. Farmers moved into the industrial revolution as technology greatly eased the physical labor of agriculture. Even the computer scientists of the 50’s and 60’s have moved into the digital age with surprising ease in terms of job security. Like many I enjoy following the tech industry to see where the latest technology is heading. The obvious trend is that robotics and automation are getting more advanced by the year. Self driving cars and trucks are the future of transportation, the automation of our service industry is getting cheaper for companies to implement, and the public is adapting to using them. What does this mean for the workforce of today ten or fifteen years from now? With automation, many of our unskilled labor professions will have no job to move into as they did in the past. Automation will be cheaper and easier for companies than employing humans in many professions. No healthcare will be required, automation doesn’t need retirement benefits or severance packages, and there is no hassle for human resource departments to fire a defective robot. Throw it out and get a new one. What will the future mean for those people losing their jobs and for our society as a whole?
I want to make clear that I feel we are heading into a better world because of automation. Robotics has advanced to the point where robots are mobile, can navigate city streets without a human at the controls, they can run through fields like they are reenacting the “Sound of Music”, and can learn basic tasks on their own without being programmed beforehand. Today, robots are being built so lifelike that passersby don’t even notice. No longer will we be staring into the uncanny valley but into humanlike personal assistants. Self checkout at stores by touch screen will become the norm for most supermarket lanes, and eventually for all purchases at all brick and mortar stores. Vehicle accidents may become something we tell our grandchildren about. One point three million people die worldwide each year due to vehicle accidents with thirty five thousand in the U.S. alone. Self driving cars will save lives, cut down our car insurance payments to a fraction, and save us days of our lives we now spend stuck in traffic. Even if one car computer shuts down on the road every other car can monitor the change and compensate. The automatic braking which is coming out now is just the beginning. In the hospitals of tomorrow patients will have a better chance to walk out alive because computer assistant robots can cross check every medical journal instantaneously and inform the doctors and nurses of the necessary steps to take. And these are the tip of the iceberg. Fear of automation is the fear of the Luddite. Embrace technology because it will be amazing.
However, with automation comes a need to change our workforce. Everyone probably recognizes this but only a select few are taking the steps necessary to bridge the workplace gap between today and the not so distant future. The American government definitely isn’t tackling this problem and that is worrisome. Unskilled labor may become a thing of the past outside of customer service representatives. That is a lot of jobs in the current economy. The biggest elephant in the room also was the biggest theme of our recent election, American manufacturing. America has seen a lot of the low skilled manufacturing jobs leave the country while at the same time American manufacturing statistics are actually up. We are producing more but employing less. And we all know why but we refuse to tell ourselves the truth. Even the Chinese are getting better at employing automation in their economy. They are moving away from sweatshops and moving into robotics. The jobs we need people to be moving into are producing, programming, and running the automations. Those jobs require skilled labor that needs the benefit of an advanced education. Without that retraining we are going have a glut of unemployment coming all at once, with all the social and economic problems that entails. Government needs to act now to start this process so it does not come crashing down on our economy all at once.
The failure to prepare for the next economy can be disastrous. There will be a lot of jobs lost in the short run that we will need to prepare for. There are currently over 3 million jobs in the trucking industry that are going the way of the dinosaur thanks to self driving trucks. Amazon currently uses entire warehouses that are fully automated from the stock boys to the truck drivers. Add to that number the jobs of bus drivers, taxi cabs, Uber, and other commercial vehicles that will have their jobs automated. Fast food chains such as McDonalds are threatening to automate their cashier functions rather than pay people fifteen dollars an hour minimum wage. I believe they are automating not because these corporations are just evil. They are automating because it will be cheaper to automate those jobs than pay human salaries and companies will always chase lower costs. In the near future, McDonalds and other fast food stores will be unwilling to even pay current salaries because automation will be cheaper. Where are those workers going to go for jobs? That’s another 3.5 million jobs lost to automation.
Sure, some higher skilled and higher paid jobs will replace those laid off workers but those new jobs will not offset numbers-wise the old ones that are lost. The fast food industry and transportation are just two major industries on the block. Other examples are custodian robots that are basically super Roomba bots on steroids, personal assistance bots that can blend into office work, or robots that write news articles and blog posts. It won’t only be unskilled jobs that will be lost to automation; they are just the first wave. Again, it is important to remember we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg now.
It is promising to see some nations are adapting to this new reality. Israel is the Start up Nation with major growth coming in tech and programming. I am hopeful that the Israeli government sees the future of the new economy and will take the steps to move into it. Israel and other countries are looking forward while America is looking back. The U.S. is stuck is a nostalgia loop, trying to recapture the jobs of yesterday while the jobs of tomorrow are being developed elsewhere. Does this mean that we should be pressing the panic button right now? Panic is never the solution and America does have some time. Automation will be great and all our lives will be better off for it. But our transition into an automation economy needs to be smooth and adaptable for all our citizens rather than a brutal struggle of denial, trying endlessly to recapture lost glory.