4.1.2Why always “Automation OR Jobs?” Never “both…and.” Or, is there really a correlation?

The PewResearch Internet Project has recently released a report of a “research” project regarding people’s opinions about whether automation is a job-creating or job-depleting phenomenon.

The reason I use the quote marks around research is that it is not the type of research I learned in grad school. It’s the modern “let’s do a quick Internet survey on a provocative topic that will get lots of page views” type of thing. We did these all the time when I worked in the trade press. You send out a request to a select group of people to respond to a SurveyMonkey or equivalent Web instrument. Tabulate the results a week later. Voila, a research report.

I know that not all the opinions relate to manufacturing. But we seem to take the brunt of the comments on the topic of jobs and automation.

Opinion survey of 1,900

Writers Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson, discussing, “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs,” said: The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

Some 1,896 experts responded to the following question:
The economic impact of robotic advances and AI—Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?

Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

OK, you survey a large group, 1,900, and are surprised that the results approximate 50-50. That sounds consistent with about any large opinion poll on a controversial subject.

He said, she said

Still, the thoughts provoke some further discussion.

Bill Snyder, writing in ComputerWorld, “Is the Robot Revolution Going to Put Us Out of Work?”, says, “I do worry about how our economy will manage to absorb the millions of workers whose jobs are being automated out of existence.” Wait a minute! He threw that sentence in without any substantiation whatsoever.

He proceeds in the modern journalistic style to draw from the PewResearch report a few “he said, she said” quotes that amounted to nothing new. Oh, if only people writing in these major publications knew anything about automation and manufacturing—and thinking.

Then I saw this article, “The New Luddites: What if Technological Innovation Is a Job-Killer After All?” in Slate by Will Oremus. This article also drew on the Pew Research report. It was more thoughtful than the ComputerWorld piece, but still pretty shallow in understanding about what really happens in the real world. And still a “he said, she said” style of journalism that adds nothing to the conversation.

I find that these people who are all far smarter than I look at macro numbers and charts and read each other—kind of like the A students they probably were, come to interesting conclusions. But almost none seem to reflect the understanding that comes from years of working in a factory or production plant. From actually implementing automation. I was a B student. I always asked why and never tried to just regurgitate what others said. (Got me into trouble in a philosophy course once—that’s when I learned to keep my mouth shut in class.) I also worked with people far smarter than I who knew about implementing automation and what its effects were.

Thinking beyond the headline

Let me throw out some ideas for (I hope) a discussion.

  • Automation is not a zero-sum game
  • A near-future decrease in working-age population with near-term increase in home health care needs may require automation
  • Innovation does drive job creation, but look beyond automation to new products and services

I think often about these macro economic factors. What do you think about their impact?

  • The post WWII boom in manufacturing, jobs and wages was probably an anomaly in the long-term
  • Women entered the workforce en masse in the 1970s effectively doubling the workforce with no balancing job creation driving the unemployment rate up
  • Worker shortage and production required to supply all the consumer goods and aircraft drove wages up in the 50s and 60s—seldom seen before and not likely to be seen again?
  • The “MBA mentality” that began in the 1980s had the effect of enhancing the wage disparity from lowest to highest in the organization—compare the US to just about any other modern economy—the people at the very top are usually reluctant to share the wealth
  • Much of the automation made the workplace safer—many jobs lost were dirty, dangerous, back-breaking, mind-numbingly repetitious
  • Because of all types of automation, modern manufacturing plants and process plants are far less dangerous and more attractive places to work
  • Jobs come from designers developing new products that serve a real need that people are willing to buy (duh)
  • Jobs come from companies who research and develop the technologies that create the modern manufacturing plants and advanced products of today and tomorrow

(note: I’ll return to what I call the “MBA mentality” in future posts. Let’s just say that I remember the first MBA/Finance who came to the manufacturing company where I worked who thought he should run things, not just be a bean counter. Out the door were considerations of customers and products. It was all about numbers on a spreadsheet.)

I have written about this many times; here are a few links:

Promote Fair Competition
Automation vs Jobs (podcast)
Manufacturing Jobs Are Available, But…
Automation Technology Impacts Jobs in China, Too
Jobs in Manufacturing

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