Many captains of technology are openly predicting the demise of humankind from advancements in automation and artificial intelligence (AI). We must recall that mankind has created, endured and grown from nearly every technological advancement. The semiconductor industry all but did away with vacuum tubes, which would not be suitable for the smartphone in your jacket pocket. Milking machines did replace milkmaids, but I am hard-pressed to find a modern woman who wants that job.
Why, then, do tech titans loathe automation and AI? For the same reasons the Luddites feared weaving machinery — they discounted human flexibility and overestimated the displacement power of technology.
Automation exists to save manual labor. In my lifetime, banks employed rooms full of people who manually reconciled accounts on the original spreadsheet — large pieces of paper with preprinted grids of columns and rows. When IBM brought computation machines into banks, there was a transient (and isolated) spate of unemployment among the accounting class, who were quickly absorbed into other lines of work.
So why are we fearful of new machines designed to reduce human toil further? Others sense a need to increase job opportunities to meet the needs of the population but fail to incorporate the slumping birth rates (as side effects of general prosperity) or baby boomer attrition. Indeed, if, as one taxpayer advocacy group maintains, there is a $2 trillion economic drag from needless regulations, our tech industry leaders would do better to focus on the debilitating effects of Washington rather than robotics.
The fact is that automation temporarily displaces workers and tends to do so in singular industries. Currently, the fast food industry is a prime target, especially once $15 per-hour wages bring annual price parity in line with automated burger flippers. But that is one industry, and the change will neither be instantaneous nor ubiquitous. Displaced employees will adapt.
What is clear, then, is that economics, like life, finds a way. A few jobs may be eliminated, but the displaced workers either find alternative employment or the next generation will simply avoid the automated industries. Since some industries cannot (yet) be automated, even the best invoicing software cannot replace a cashier, job migration between fields remains possible.
Aside from reducing human toil, technology can augment or amplify general prosperity. AI will contribute but not replace jobs at a rate anywhere near that of mechanical automatons. Artificial intelligence still requires authentic intelligence, because the first order of business is always to ask a question, something AI presently cannot do well. We humans are still pretty good at inquiry.
It might even create jobs for service techs to set up or repair your dairy cow artificial insemination machinery. Sadly, the bull will be out of a job.
For the full article, go to Forbes.com.
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