A person who lived through the introduction of digital automation in the 1950s could be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. Once again, there is a growing feeling of unease in the public that perhaps digital automation has progressed to a point where this latest generation of “smart machines” will indeed cause massive unemployment of today’s workers. Feeding this nervousness are recent pronouncements by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has said that “20 years from now, the labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower,” or by technology professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford University’s Martin School, who claim that an estimated 47% of US jobs are at high risk and 19% at medium risk of being automated within two decades.
Most economists are much more optimistic. For example, a recent University of Chicago survey of leading economists found that some 90% agreed or strongly agreed that “advancing automation has not historically reduced employment in the United States.” That said, all economists concede that past introductions of automation — digital and analog — have eliminated certain types of jobs (e.g., in agriculture and manufacturing). Nevertheless, citing 250 years of historical precedents, economists will typically argue that the resulting longer-term job growth has always been well worth whatever short-term pain may be involved. Yet again, their counsel to the public is to be patient — but also to be prepared to learn the advanced skill sets that the coming automation will surely demand.
Whether today’s society will indeed be patient is a question of growing debate. There is “an increasing fear of technology,” Nobel laureate economist Robert Shiller said earlier this year in an interview with CNBC. This fear, he explained, stems from the rapid advances along a broad front of information and computing technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things, among many, many others. These computing technologies, he says, seem “to be changing life in such a fundamental way and what it’s leaving people thinking is ‘where will I be in 30 years? … Where will my children be?'”
The anxiety that Shiller described has sparked various forms of backlash against technology that affects people’s jobs. For example, the smartphone ride service company Uber has seen protests ranging from litigation against its operations to violence against its drivers by taxi drivers who believe the company is unfairly stealing away their livelihood. A 2014 PEW Research Center survey into technological change and its future impacts indicates that 30% of Americans see technology change leading to a future where people’s lives are mostly worse. The lower the household income and educational achievement of the respondent, the greater the pessimism expressed about the impacts of technology.
In an article in the recent issue of the Cutter IT Journal, we explore some of the historical roots behind technology backlashes related to automation introduction and its impacts on employment. We also look at the generator of technology unemployment backlashes, namely the automation job destruction/creation cycle. Finally, we examine whether today’s fears of technological unemployment are well founded or, as in the past, overblown.