The Robot Question
By Adam Simpson
“As President, what would be your approach to workforce automation?” That’s an important question that has yet to be raised during the 2016 presidential election race, but the answer could have a profound impact on how automation impacts the wider economy. Considering that workforce automation is expected to begin impacting the economy over the next two decades and that the next president could potentially preside over the next eight years of policymaking, it’s important to learn candidates’ answers sooner rather than later.
One thing that unites the two most powerful candidates—Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—is the claim that they will “bring back” manufacturing jobs to the United States. On his website, Trump bemoans the loss of “tens of millions of jobs” due to trade agreements with China. Meanwhile Clinton resolves to “crack down on companies that ship jobs… overseas and create incentives for companies to bring jobs back” to the United States, accusing China of abusing global trade rules. However, as pointed out by the authors of The Second Machine Age, Andrew Mcafee and Erik Brynjolfsson, as well as economist Michael Spence in Foreign Affairs “offshoring is often only a way station on the road to automation.” Meanwhile, however, automation is on the rise there and the country appears to be accelerating investment into robotics. Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, wrote in the New York Times that China could emerge as the focal point for those social and economic disruptions brought on by workforce automation, noting that Foxconn—a Taiwanese manufacturer with many factories in mainland China—intends to automate as much as 70% of its factory work by 2018.** It may be popular political rhetoric, but the notion that manufacturing jobs will return to the United States seems increasingly divorced from reality in the long term.
Additionally, the fight for a $15 minimum wage in the United States led to a warning from ex-McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi that implementing such compensation would incentivize advances in automation, ultimately resulting in fewer job opportunities for working class Americans. The argument was supported by commentators in The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. In reality, numerous fast food chains are already investigating staffing plans with lighter human footprints. There are already restaurants where servers are largely obfuscated by using iPads. Add to that the possible extinction of the line cook to industrial burger machines and fully automated pizza production and restaurants look increasingly poised to reduce labor costs. These may not be enviable, meaningful jobs that we should commit to preserving, but it’s still nothing to scoff at—the US food service industry currently employs 14.4 million workers after all.
These disruptions go beyond manufacturing and food service however. Self-driving cars may disrupt taxis and long haul trucking. Amazon is reducing warehouse labor with machines, which may soon begin stocking your local supermarket. This is really just the beginning.
That venture capital investments into robotics doubled from 2014 to 2015 may pave the way for further potential in automation. Even still, predictions about the scope of job loss vary. The Gartner research firm predicts that one in three US jobs will be consumed by “software, robots and smart machines” by 2025. Oxford economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimate that 47% could be automated by 2033. However, MIT economist David Autor points out that automation doesn’t simply destroy jobs, they also compliment them. This seems to be the thinking behind a recent OECD working paper projects closer to 9% of jobs lost during the same time period as tasks, rather than whole jobs, become automated or computerized. It’s also worth pointing out that such transformations entail new jobs being created, but according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report it’s likely still a net loss in the global economy between 2015 and 2020.
There are many factors that could slow the deployment of an automated workforce. Consumer preferences may result in labor retention, i.e. you may prefer a human bartender or cab driver to yak at during nights out. Overregulation—for example, as a response to fears about a fleet of empty trucks on the road—could also stymie advancements. These obstacles should be acknowledged, but it seems inevitable—assuming any rate of improvement in efficiency and cost—that automation will be utilized by businesses to transform the paradigm of production and services, disrupting the broader economy to no small degree.
What becomes of those workers that are discarded from the economy? Leonid Bershidsky unwittingly describes a particularly pitiful forecast:
“Paradoxical as it may seem, allowing machines to take over whole industries and enrich their owners can only work without disturbing social peace if governments invest in training people for old-fashioned professions. Someone will need to make all those artisanal products that machine-owners will crave… [and] provide forms of entertainment… ballet dancers and classical musicians may suddenly find themselves in great demand.”
Should we all become the dancers and artisans (in all likelihood independent contractors) of the the coming robot moguls? That type of technological unemployment is certainly far off, but it nonetheless seems an unfortunate possibility. There are, however, many businessmen, academics, and philosophers now thinking about how to respond to a more automated economy. Is the answer a universal basic income, a notion recently rejected by Swiss voters? Is the answer is in a new #FightFor15 focused on the hours of the work week rather than the hourly wage? Is the answer more public funds for education programs that might teach displaced workers new skills and trades? Or perhaps a presidential candidate will ensure us that through the abundance of an automated economy goods will get cheaper, demand will go up, and the economy will infinitely expand to continuously secure human-powered jobs.
Their perspectives are sure to vary during this “colorful” presidential race, but voters deserve to hear about their perspectives before disruptions become more acute. The notion of technological unemployment, or more crudely “robots taking our jobs,” may seem a far-fetched sci-fi concept, but it is one that many are seriously considering. The voters of 2016 should be granted the opportunity to weigh candidates’ views and policy prescriptions—if there are any—on “The Robot Question.” So it’s time to ask it.
**It’s worth noting that Foxconn’s CEO backpedaled from these comments at a shareholder meeting shortly after making this prediction, but the comments nonetheless reveal enthusiasm if not intention.