How robots and information technology are changing the nature of employment and what humans can do about it.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- How robots and other information technology are substituting for labor.
- How use of robots, automation and technology pushes down prices and wages.
- What humans can provide that machines never will.
- Why job skills will be most in demand in the coming years.
- How the level of academic knowledge needed to complete jobs peaked in the year 2000 and has been declining since.
- How we’ll decide what tasks will be performed by humans versus robots.
- How there are still gaps where workers can increase productivity while demonstrating empathy.
Will A Robot Take Over Your Job?
Two years ago my family and I landed in Los Angeles (“LAX”) from an overseas flight from Tokyo.
We stood in line at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Directly in front of us in line a woman wearing a Muslim hijab pushed a cart with two large suitcases.
When we reached the front of the cue, there was a sign that read, “Don’t cross the white line until it is your turn.”
The woman, thinking it was her turn, pushed the cart about five inches over the line. Everyone behind her including us inched forward.
An immigration officer sitting behind a desk snapped at her to move back. She tried, but because the line had move up a bit there wasn’t enough room.
The officer yelled louder. The woman still couldn’t move back. Finally, clearly frustrated, the officer came around his desk and shoved the cart over the line, knocking the woman backward. She stumbled and would have fallen if we hadn’t caught her as we were pushed back into the people standing behind us.
Perhaps this incident is an exception, but from my experience it is representative of the high level of stress, distrust and confrontational attitude present at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol airport checkpoints post 9/11.
Last June, we again flew into Los Angeles from overseas. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol experience was very different this time. The line was short, and we were quickly directed to a computer kiosk where we scanned our passports and answered a few questions about goods we purchased overseas.
The kiosk printed out a receipt, which we handed to a customs officer, and we exited the immigration area without saying a word to anyone. The experience was stress free.
The kiosks cost $36,000 each and have cut U.S. Customs and Border Patrol wait times at LAX by 30%.
That means more passengers are processed through customs and immigration at a lower cost. In other words, productivity increased.
For decades, information technology, robotics and other forms of automation have been contributing to increased economic productivity.
Traditionally, these capital investments complemented labor in that old jobs were replaced with higher paying jobs, often to run the new machines. The new technology made the human worker more productive.
That is no longer the case. Computers and other forms of robotics are now so advanced they are often perfect substitutes for labor. They don’t make human workers more productive. They replace them entirely.
The LA immigration officer who pushed the woman is not more productive at his job. His job was replaced. And the experience is more pleasant because of it.
Google has been developing and testing self-driving cars for a number of years. These cars can be found driving the city streets and highways of Los Angeles and Austin.
It is conceivable within decades that most trucks and cars will be self-driven with no need for human input other than to choose the destination.
These self-driven vehicles don’t make humans more productive drivers. They replace them as drivers. In such a world, wages for delivery truck drivers, bus drivers and taxi drivers will fall, if those jobs even exist.
Lower Costs and Subsistence Living
Futurist Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at Gigaom Research is quoted as follows in Geoff Colvin’s new book “Humans Are Underrated,”
“An increasing portion of the world’s population will be outside of the world of work—either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle.”
The positive side to technological advances is dramatically decreased costs.
Television sets and other electronics are significantly cheaper on an inflation-adjusted basis than they were twenty years ago.
That means even though middle class wages have stagnated when adjusted for overall inflation, those wages have increased in terms of their ability to purchase some consumer goods where manufacturing costs have plummeted due to technological advances.
Still, cheaper goods are of little consolation if one doesn’t have work. So will most jobs be replaced by computers?
Given the pace of technological change, most jobs could indeed be replaced by computers if humans choose that path.
Robots and Human Will
The critical question is not what computers will have the capacity to do, but what will humans allow them to do.
Geoff Colvin writes, “What are the activities that we humans by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life will simply insist be performed by other humans, regardless of what computers can do?”
In Tokyo, at many stops along the commuter train networks there is a white-gloved attendant who quietly motions people with his or her hands not to fall off the edge of the platform.
This worker does not increase the train system’s productivity (with the exception of encouraging commuters to pack in more tightly during rush hour). Mostly, the attendants are there as a nicety; to be of help if needed.
Perhaps you don’t want to pay the higher train fares required to support human train platform workers, but would you pay more for a human doctor to deliver the results of your cancer screening rather than receive a print out from a kiosk?
What about a counselor, a teacher or a massage therapist? Would you prefer a human or a machine?
The Cost of Empathy
Some day computers will effectively do all those tasks, but we as humans don’t always want what is most effective and efficient. Sometimes we crave genuine empathy.
We want to interact with someone who can discern what we are feeling and respond appropriately.
The question is will we be willing to pay more for it?