It’s a Monday morning.
You walk into your office.
‘How was your weekend, Nash?’
None of them respond. They look away.
Confused, you stroll towards your cubicle.
‘Did I do something wrong?’ You ask yourself…
When you get to your desk, your chair has been rolled away. In its place is a metal, humanoid device. Its steel tendrils reaching out, typing at 900 words-per-minute on your keyboard.
The egg-shaped orb where its head should be slowly turns 180 degrees to face you. A pulsing LED light illuminates on its stripe of a mouth.
‘Good morning. My name is Typist-3000. I am your replacement. Please report to HR immediately.’
Stunned, you step backwards towards the HR office. Did that thing take your job!?
After shutting the door behind you, you ask the HR manager, Sara, what’s happened.
You’ve been at the company for 28 years! You’ve received nothing but positive feedback at every annual review. You’re one of the company’s top employees. You have a wife and kids back home. There’s no way that thing can offer what you do.
‘Listen, I get it. It’s weird for everyone. The fact is — Typist-3000 is top of the line. He can type ten times your speed. And face it, most of what you do is automatable. The guys upstairs ran the numbers and realised that a robot would pay for itself in under a year. Sorry, bud.’
Slam! Your head hits your keyboard.
You must have fallen asleep again. You look down. The drool on your collar confirms it.
You hate that thing that’s been ruining your 3:00PM catnap for the past few months.
Back to work…
Do you fear the robot revolution?
Does this nightmare haunt you too?
Do you think that robots threaten your future?
You’re not alone.
According to Pew Research, over 70% of Americans share your view. They’re wary of a world where machines perform many of the tasks done by humans.
It’s a reasonable emotion to feel. And one that the mainstream is more than happy to egg on.
Stuff.co.nz claimed that ‘46 per cent of New Zealand jobs were at risk of automation over the next two decades. That’s 885,000 jobs, in all sectors.’
A few weeks ago, The New Zealand Herald published a headline, ‘Half of jobs at risk to automation — will you lose yours?’
The New York Times echoed a similar question, ‘Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?’
It’s fuelled by comments from public figures, people we’d consider the brightest of our generation.
‘The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.’
‘What to do about mass unemployment? This is going to be a massive social challenge. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better [than a human]. These are not things that I wish will happen. These are simply things that I think probably will happen.’
‘You cross the threshold of job-replacement of certain activities all sort of at once. So, you know, warehouse work, driving, room cleanup, there’s quite a few things that are meaningful job categories that, certainly in the next 20 years [will go away].’
Mass unemployment. Decimated jobs. Social challenge. Oh my…
Well I, your humble editor, think Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates are wrong.
History shows that where technology taketh away, it also giveth. Yes, jobs are lost when a new, more efficient tech moves in. But at the same time, new tech can often create new industries.
That’s where I think the brainiacs above go wrong. They don’t account for new job creation. [openx slug=inpost]
Casualties of past technology waves
Here are a few technologies that people also heralded as the end of the world:
- Trains — Humans aren’t meant to go 30 miles an hour.
- Telephones — A quick way to get electrocuted.
- Television — Watching that screen will ruin your eyes.
- CRT Monitors — The radiation could cause miscarriages in pregnant women.
- Wi-Fi — The invisible radiation will cause cancer.
- The Y2K Bug — Planes will fall out of the sky when the clock strikes midnight.
- Cassette Recorders — Home taping is killing the music industry.
- VHS Recorders — The technology will make the film industry obsolete.
- Videogames — It trains mass-murderers to kill.
People were right about those technologies changing the world. But they ended up changing the world for the better. Because of them, many new industries flourished.
There were victims however. Many jobs have disappeared over the years because of technology. Does Elon Musk tear up when he thinks of these victims:
- Rat catchers
- Leech collectors
- Plague doctors
- Bowling alley pinsetters
- Switchboard operators
- Town criers
These honourable professions were left in the dust. Technology waits for no man…and certainly no lamplighter.
The hard workers in these industries were quickly rendered unemployed as new technology took their places…but was it all that bad?
Because of disruptive technologies, we now have shorter working hours. Better working environments. More leisure time. Cheaper stuff.
If I had to make a forecast for the effect of automation on our lives, it’s that the trends I just mentioned will continue.
What would you think if, because of improved automation, you only had to work 20 hours a week and were still paid the same?
Don’t be surprised if that happens in your lifetime.
Editor, Money Morning New Zealand