What does the future of robotics and automation really mean for our employment prospects? For many years now, human labour processes have gradually been replaced by automated processes, with many forced to move into new roles, and often new industries, as a result.
This has not all been doom and gloom, however, though it is an interesting, and at times worrying subject, one that doesn’t receive as much attention in the media as one might expect. Still, there have been a number of notable studies conducted on the subject of automation, robotics, and the future of employment, and the results are nothing shy of interesting.
And as you can well imagine, there’s always plenty of room for debate where such a topic is concerned. As a recent Pew Research Centre study found, experts in fields like automation, robotics, as well as employment and history, are fairly evenly split on the subject of whether robots and artificial intelligence will displace substantial numbers of workers in the near future by rendering their positions obsolete.
Job Creation is Important, But So Too Are Technological Advances
“Why don’t you replace the shovels with spoons?” was the famous retort from the renowned American economist Milton Friedman when touring one of China’s most noteworthy public works programs, one in which hundreds of peasant labourers were digging a canal with shovels.
In the US, a project of this scale would have been undertaken with large machinery, yet in China it was undertaken by hundreds of workers so as to create more jobs.
Whilst China is renowned for its technological advances, and the scale of its public works programs – most of which are now conducted using large machinery and not hundreds of workers with shovels – there is still legislature in place that prevents the widespread use of machinery in the agricultural sector so as to keep jobs available for ‘unskilled’ workers.
This is an interesting means of ensuring there are enough jobs to go around, and it is also worth noting that in countries like the US and Australia, countries known for their agricultural resources, that there has long been fewer new jobs created in the sector because of automation. 41 percent of the US workforce was once employed in the agricultural sector to produce foodstuffs, now that figure is less than 2 percent.
But it’s also important to recognise how much the human existence has improved because of automation and robotics, something an award-winning Australian futurist like Chris Riddell knows well. Life is so much safer now than it has ever been before, and not only in the developed world, but in the developing world as well.
We can’t do away with automation and robotics to ensure access to employment for all, so maybe what we need to do is rethink jobs and job creation to ensure a fairer distribution of employment so there are no clear winners or losers. Perhaps it is as William Gibson once wrote, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”