You’ve probably seen the warning that ‘Robots are stealing our jobs’, by which it is assumed that automation is diminishing workers’ opportunities and in danger of creating mass unemployment because of technological innovation. It’s a bold assumption, but like many bold assumptions, it’s highly likely to be false. I’ll give you two probability estimates to show why: one empirical, and the other one philosophical.
The empirical one first. A quick Google search of UK unemployment rates – only available from 1971 – shows the highest level was 11.9% in 1984. I don’t think anyone will deny that since 1984 we’ve had unprecedented exponential advancement in technology. Yet at the same time, there are more people on earth than ever before, more jobs than ever before, and more jobs in prospect than ever before. Exponential increase, by definition, means technology is going to continue to enhance our robot capabilities more and more as we go further in time. But even if the technological progress curve doesn't continue to follow a precise exponential function, it is certainly going to continue to climb. And that being the case, there will be more jobs created, and at the same time more outsourcing to automation, which means more leisure time too, as we save labour on tasks.
If you find this hard believe, here’s what you can do. Grab a pencil and a piece of paper, and create a graph in which the horizontal axis (x) shows a UK timeline of any two chronological coordinates of your choice (for ease, no earlier than 1950), and the vertical axis (y) shows the advancement of technology. Then draw a second graph with the same timescales, but this time with unemployment levels being shown on the vertical axis. If your doubts are justified, then you should observe the appearance of some kind of causal relationship. But there isn’t, of course - the two look nothing like each other. And once you factor in the other concomitant benefits of increased technology, on top of more jobs and more leisure time - such as a better standard of living, improved communication, more widespread access to knowledge, andlonger life expectancy - it’s fairly easy to part company with the doomsayers on this issue.
Now here’s the philosophical consideration. Imagine if you time-travelled back to have this conversation with a journalist at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and he told you how fearful he was that these new farming, printing and transportation machines would bring a gradual end to humans’ ability to work. You'd simply have to tell him that a lot changed after the Industrial Revolution, and that those changes saw more people on the planet than ever before, more jobs than ever before, and an unprecedented progression-explosion in terms of standards of living and material prosperity.
The key reason why there is probably nothing major to worry about is that what constitutes ‘work’ (where work means earning a living) changes with growing societies and increasing technological advancements. In the early 19th century you wouldn’t have been able to imagine how people could earn a living, say, making television programs, doing stand-up comedy, providing complex domestic litigation, designing cars, driving taxis, flying planes, building speedboats, producing Kindles, playing football, working at a bowling alley, advertising on websites, fixing telephone lines or analysing DNA or quantum mechanics. The same is true of this generation – the future ‘work’ that lies ahead is currently bound by technological limitations and unawareness of the activities that are currently not jobs but will be one day. As technology increases and those robots do things we used to do, we go on to do things we never used to do. In other words, we lose jobs thanks to technology (and make our lives a little easier in the process) and we create jobs thanks to ingenuity - and knowing your own career path in a way that best utilises your talents and experience, and optimises your prospects, can give you a significant advantage in what will be a highly competitive future jobs market.
James Knight - Guest blogger