Automation and the Future of Labor: Two Scenarios

This post was written by Kevin Brown, an associate professor in the Dayton School of Business at Asbury University.

Frankenstein. It is one of the most enduring horror stories of all time.  Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, inspired by a nightmare, is a cautionary tale.  Ingenuity run amok.  Progress beyond our control.  Creation dominating the creator.  Like Shelley, these themes occupy our collective consciousness and haunt our imaginations today.

Indeed, today’s technological innovation has grown at a dizzying pace, leaving us to marvel at the things we create, while equally fearing their unknown consequences.  Specifically, automated labor such as drones, self-driving vehicles, automatic kiosks, robo-traders, self-learning software bots, and other advanced forms of artificial intelligence are redefining our social and economic landscape.

Like Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, it is difficult to predict all of the consequences that accompany progress.  We know the robots are coming, but in the years ahead, what does this mean?

Even the most calculated and measured economic forecast will naturally consort with some level of uncertainty.   While not all predictions fit neatly into a discrete bucket, two competing scenarios seem to emerge when it comes to envisioning a robot dominated automated future.

Here, I wish to briefly consider these scenarios.  Perhaps more importantly, and beyond what we can glean from economics, I will also describe ways that the Judeo-Christian tradition might serve as a meaningful guidepost for navigating these alternative contexts.

Scenario #1: History Repeats Itself

Throughout history, doomsday predictions of labor-replacing technology have marked our economic landscape.  Among other things, they all share a common attribute: None have come to fruition in any meaningful way. Many will recall the Luddite riots in the early 1800s—English farmers who razed the cotton machinery that seemingly threatened their livelihoods.  Similar doomsday fears have arisen since—and yet, none have materialized.

Alternatively, with the passage of time, history reveals that while technology has indeed replaced jobs, it has at the same time created new jobs, more jobs—even better jobs.

How?

At one level, automation yields greater output at a lower cost, leading to higher quantity demanded for a given product, which may require more workers for a given industry.

Consider, for example, the knitting machine that was adopted and feared as a job-killing device (indeed, it was one of the technologies that drew the ire of the Luddites).  Yet as author James Bessen notes, by the late 1800s there were 4 times as many factory weavers as there were in the 1830s.

For a more modern example, consider “automated teller machines.” When ATMs hit the market, many thought it spelled doom for bank tellers doing routinized daily tasks.  Indeed, as one Economist article points out, the average teller number fell from 20 per branch in 1988 to 13 in 2004.  And yet, labor saving costs from ATMs lowered the expense of running a banking branch, allowing banks to open more branches. In turn, the total number of employees increased.

Perhaps more importantly, with increased technology new jobs get created for industries that we have not yet imagined.  A recent Deloitte study in the UK discovered that approximately 800k jobs—all considered to be low-skilled and routine in nature were indeed eliminated as a direct result of automation and artificial intelligence.  However, they also found that 3.5 million new jobs were created, and the wages for the new jobs were on average $13,000 higher.

Indeed, Google’s Eric Schmidt suggests that, contrary to some of the more ominous predictions of human demise at the behest of automation, advanced technology will likely create more jobs than can actually be filled by employees—a prediction altogether different than one of mass unemployment.

So an appraisal of history confirms that the threat of automation is hardly new, and thankfully, the net effect is positive.  While many economists and pundits suggest that technology will produce, not kill, additional jobs, there are still voices to the contrary.

Scenario #2: History Repeats Itself—Until it Doesn’t

When considering automation—one outcome is almost certain: Disruption.  The more important is the nature of that disruption.

As mentioned, some say that automation will create new jobs, but even those jobs may be “automate-able” due to the advanced nature of machine learning.  In other words, as technology forays into realms of progress previously unknown, it would not be difficult to imagine that the very jobs created would, themselves, be eligible for a technological disruption.  “This time is different,” notes futurist Martin Ford.

One of the key ideas related to this prediction is that the complexity of other computers, robots, and so forth will soon surpass the complexity of our brain machines, making us obsolete.  We have only managed to outpace computers in the workforce up until now because our cerebral circuits are more advanced than the technological alternatives.

But how long can this continue?

Consider this gloomy, if not jarring, opening line to a May 2017 Newsweek article: “If any of us are still alive in the year 2100, we’ll likely look back on artificial intelligence as the definitive development of the 21st century.”

Unfortunately, machines have shelf lives.  It is for this reason that William Davidow and Michael Malone, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, suggest that “We will soon be looking at hordes of citizens of zero economic value.”  Ray Kurzweil agrees.  The author and Google engineer suggests that we are rapidly approaching the end of human history as we know it.

Such dismal forecasts of human obsolescence have elicited calls for action from notable scientists and innovators like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk.  But whether we can successfully slow automation’s rise, blunt its effects, or simply suffer its invariable war path of progress—naturalist prognosticator’s orbit around a similar theme: Humans are an outdated link on the infinite chain of progress.

In the past, displacement through market forces and new technologies would require market participants to transition to new work contexts through updated skills training and other programs that might help lubricate one’s transition to a new labor opportunity.

While true, it is important to recognize the rate at which technology, and its bedfellow—information—changes, which is exponential (not linear).  An exponential curve grows at a constant rate, meaning that it multiplies (think of a hockey-stick shaped curve).  Simply put: the pace of growth is always multiplying and always accelerating.

So it is not simply that we will experience change; it is the rate of change that we must consider.  Moreover, if technological change is exponential, then it would not be difficult to imagine a labor disruption unparalleled by anything else we have ever seen.

Moving Forward

This is all a lot to absorb.  With such a dynamic future comes uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes fear.

Given the aforementioned scenarios, each different in makeup, what might the Christian meta-narrative add to this?  How would the faith tradition illuminate our role and ground our identity in an automated world?

Much more can be said, but a few salient considerations are in order.

First, in light of these scenarios, we should begin with a more fundamental question about origins.  The faith tradition asserts that humankind is created, and inhabits a created order.  Moreover, the creation narrative found in scripture asserts that God is creative, productive, relational, and loving and, as his image-bearers, we also possess these attributes.

In this sense, our capacity to work, create, relate, and produce is deeply woven into the fabric of what it means to be a person. Thus, jobs may change, but our proclivity to create and collaborate within the world will not.

Second, regardless of labor disruption or the lack thereof, the church’s task to Christian witness remains the same.  “Our job,” writes the late Richard John Neuhaus, “is to alert people to their own story.”  So, Christian witness invites creative and winsome ways to share the Gospel narrative, which is ultimately a story about reality.  Pastor Christopher Brooks states it well in Values & Capitalism’s Documentary To Whom is Given: “The church is the conscience of culture.”

Finally, it is worth noting that a tech-dominated workforce does not short-circuit God’s call on humanity to find fulfillment, meaning, and satisfaction by creatively serving those around us.  Work, when it takes the form of service to others, is part of what we were created to do.  In other words, productive activity is not just a means to survive.  Nor is it something we do for our own glory.  Rather, in a broader sense of labor, we are invited to exercise our God reflecting capacities to glorify him and serve others.

Regardless of automation’s future role, there will always be an opportunity to serve others, and opportunities to serve are opportunities to work and create meaningful value.

To conclude, automation may appear to be our modern-day Frankenstein moment, an ominous force created by the powers of what our minds and hands have unleashed.  Change can be scary, but it forces us to think carefully about the driving narrative that organizes how we think about such things, and ultimately, how we act.

Whether history repeats itself or doesn’t, the faith tradition provides several relevant reminders.  We are more than just “brain machines” in a fight for relevance amidst superior technology.  Progress is not merely advancing technology, increasing output, or enhancing methods of production, but becoming more human—more of who God designed us to be—in our productive, creative, and relational activity.

There will always be work to do.  In a dynamic world, this is a hopeful certainty.

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites