I Get The Job Done: Technology Is Putting Us Out Of Work
One of the central talking points in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was his vow to bring back American jobs. The longtime entrepreneur and businessman touted his boardroom and negotiation skills as major benefits of a Trump presidency, arguing that he alone could convince businesses who have outsourced American jobs to other countries to employ its own citizens again. Now that he is in the White House, he has seemingly taken steps to bring jobs stateside that would have otherwise gone to countries like Mexico (including a deal involving Carrier, which will actually lead to fewer jobs, because Carrier will be investing in automation to drive costs down). However, as this report from Fortune explains, nearly all of Trump’s claims about his influence in bringing jobs back to the United States are misleading at best and sometimes simply false. But regardless of the veracity of in his claims, there remains a looming problem when it comes to the jobs in question: they are all going to be replaced by automation.
In other words, robots and computers will be responsible for eradicating millions of jobs in manufacturing and other industries in which automation isn’t as obvious a conclusion. Whereas human labor in factory jobs is routinely replaced with a robot capable of doing the same job more efficiently, jobs in fields like education, writing, and healthcare are routinely thought of as being safer from the threat of automation. However, as artificial intelligence and robotics become more nuanced, even those kinds of occupations could see surprising changes in the coming years. As Business Insider reports, even the Associated Press – a sprawling news agency operating in over 100 countries – has begun incorporating articles written by robots.
In a recent op-ed for the Guardian, Stephen Hawking offered an ominous perspective on the future of automation, writing ” the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.” In fact, AI is improving to such a degree that even doctors, lawyers, and musicians are being threatened by its implementation (even jobs in advertising and policing are being influenced [and, in some cases, replaced] by artificial intelligence, as the video below documents). There are machines that can diagnose and treat illness and injuries more effectively than humans. There are computers that can analyze evidence in lawsuits more effectively than humans. And, yes, there are even robots that can compose music just as creatively as their human counterparts.
In a report from CNBC, the implications of AI on legal professions is explained, and its analysis can be applied to pretty much any industry. “The legal profession — tradition-bound and labor-heavy — is on the cusp of a transformation in which artificial-intelligence platforms dramatically affect how legal work gets done,” reads the report. “Those platforms will mine documents for evidence that will be useful in litigation, to review and create contracts, raise red flags within companies to identify potential fraud and other misconduct or do legal research and perform due diligence before corporate acquisitions.” Naturally, this spells doom for the attorneys tasked with such jobs. On the flipside, advocates of AI argue that “there could actually be an increase in the sector’s labor force as the technology drives costs down and makes legal services more affordable to greater numbers of people.”
Of course, only considerable time will tell before we know whether such an increase in the legal labor force will be the new reality, or if the same will happen in other industries. For now, we have at least three years with a president who has not referenced the very real threat of automation on the American workforce. Back in January, Harvard Business Review ran an article titled “Why Trump Doesn’t Tweet About Automation,” and in it, the reasons for and implications of his silence are explained. “[T]he industries he’s worked in — construction, real estate, hotels, and resorts — are among the least sophisticated in their use of information technology. So he’s not well equipped to understand the dynamics of automation-driven job loss,” argues writer Thomas H. Davenport. Trump may also be refraining from openly mentioning automation because “the automation phenomenon is not driven by deals and negotiation,” and “automation-related job loss is difficult to negotiate about.” As Davenport writes:
“It’s the silent killer of human labor, eliminating job after job over a period of time. Jobs often disappear through attrition. There are no visible plant closings to respond to, no press releases by foreign rivals to counter. It’s a complex subject that doesn’t lend itself to TV sound bites or tweets.”
However, as Davenport points out, silence on automation is common among politicians in general. And for good reason. “[T]here are several good reasons why Trump and other politicians don’t tackle the automation issue,” he writes before listing the following:
- “Automation usually comes with corporate investment rather than cutback” – In the aforementioned deal with Carrier, Trump boasted that he had convinced the company to save jobs at its Indiana plant rather than move them to Mexico. The reality is, the CEO of Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, released a statement saying the following: “We’re going to make a $16 million investment in that factory in Indianapolis to automate to drive the cost down so that we can continue to be competitive….But what that ultimately means is there will be fewer jobs.” Clearly, any criticism of this corporate investment by Trump or another politician could lead to the investment being retracted, and that would look pretty bad for Trump.
- “Any politician who wants to appeal to the business community would be reluctant to provoke a war against automation” – Automation’s biggest plus side is that it increases productivity, meaning better/more work can be done in less time. Because “U.S. productivity growth has been unimpressive over the last decade,” writes Davenport, taking a stand against automation could be perceived as a fight against productivity growth, which would be career suicide for any politician.
- “[T]he work replaced by automation historically hasn’t been very fulfilling” – Many of the jobs that have fallen victim to automation are tedious, time-consuming, and objectively unexciting jobs. Davenport uses the example of 24/7 ATMs, which allow us access to our money at any time, nearly any place. To make a statement challenging the use of automation in daily life would mean ignoring the very many convenient benefits it provides, something most (if not all) Americans would unilaterally disagree with. “A political campaign based on eliminating 24/7 access to cash, for example, would be unlikely to yield a lot of votes,” he writes.
- “[I]t is a tough problem, with no obvious solution” – Trump and the political powers that be may simply be ignoring the issue because it is so convoluted. “The simple responses to the threat like ‘more STEM education’ or ‘retraining for displaced workers’ are not sufficient to deal with this complex problem,” argues Davenport.
- “[T]here is often faith in some quarters that the lost jobs will come back” – For fear of seeming reactionary, politicians seem to stay away from tackling the automation issue because they know “previous waves of automation didn’t decrease employment over the long run.” However, “now many economists, including Larry Summers, are concerned that the previous pattern won’t be repeated in this round of automation,” explains Davenport.
Whether or not the current administration opts to join the debate about automation’s effect on the workforce won’t change what’s already happening. As reported by Reuters, “80 percent of companies that plan to cut jobs in the next year expect to partially replace workers with automation.” Is your job safe?