Robots taking jobs?

Posted: May 24, 2017

Students factor rise of technology into future careers

“My neighbor. . .lost his job to outsourcing and automation, kind of a combination,” said economics teacher David Hoffner. “The idea, in economics, is that [when that happens] you need to retrain, you need to get educated. Learn more skills. And he literally couldn’t. He never finished high school. He tried. He tried to work at Toro. You had to have basic algebra to work the Toro machines. [He] couldn’t do it.”

Looking to a 2013 study from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science, it appears that automation on a mass scale is looming in America.

According to the study, 47 percent of all jobs in the United States are able to be automated.

“The reason that people are saying this is that the level of sophistication in automation has increased, I think, to a degree that work previously considered to be uniquely human will be automated,” Hoffner said.

There is an obvious incentive for businesses to automate these jobs: robots can work longer hours than humans, and for no pay other than the cost to build the robots. The increased efficiency of robots is an incentive that will drive companies to automate these 47 percent of jobs in the coming years, assuming there is no “robot tax” or other obstacle put in their way.

In addition, once the technology is developed to replace one type of job, that type of job will quickly disappear, as it would just be a matter of making more robots. “Ten percent of our [labor force] is in transportation. Delivery services, taxis, semi-truck drivers, all of that [is transportation], which is a shockingly high number, and yet if that is all automated overnight, that would be structural unemployment faster than in the past,” Hoffner said.

Clearly, huge percentages of people will end up without jobs, and many see this as one of the largest problems facing the United States today.

Political candidates have often run on delivering jobs to their constituents, as Donald Trump did in 2016, promising to take jobs back from illegal immigrants and give them to Americans.

However, there seems to be no good reason to promise to take jobs from robots that can do jobs more efficiently, safely and effectively than a human ever could.

“If you only know how to be a cashier, and a clever person in Eagan comes up with a scanner…structurally, you’re done,” Hoffner said. “The likelihood of going back to the person after the robot is nil.”

Some argue that, even though many jobs will be taken from humans, other jobs will open up.

A historical example is often used: if one were to ask a farmer in 1910 what job they will be working once a robot automates their job, they would not respond, “computer scientist.”

In the same way, some argue that new jobs will open up when old jobs are lost to robots. Some jobs even seem to be completely safe, like a dance instructor or a historian. However, not all are so optimistic about the invention of new jobs.

“I probably, when I started [at Minnehaha] 10 years ago, would have been more optimistic about economic thinking, like, ‘creative destruction! It’s fine! We’ll produce our way out of this. We’ll get more productive,'” Hoffner said. “At this point in my life [I’m less optimistic], and it could be that I’m hitting a middle-age crisis, it could be that Donald Trump is the president, it could be, maybe, less confidence in economic reasoning than I have been used to.”

According to Minnehaha science teacher Sam Meyers, the key question is whether the number of new jobs will offset the jobs being lost. His hunch is “probably not.”  There are philosophies that can safeguard students against having their jobs taken, or at least attitudes that provide a way forward if taken.

“The key thing that I think students have to be able to do is adapt,” Meyers said. “Above all else, a student needs to be adaptable now. Adaptable means being open to anything that comes your way and being willing to put in the time and the training to learn new acts.”

The future is as unpredictable as ever, so what matters is reason why a student does things, not necessarily what they do.

“When I talk about adaptability, it is easy to get caught up in the ‘what,’ it’s easy to get caught up in ‘oh, I want to go into robotics,’ or ‘I just want to go into chemical engineering,'” Meyers said. “The problem is, we can’t see into the future, and this stuff is changing so rapidly that your target can’t be the periphery ‘what,’ the target has to be the center, the ‘why.’ If you can address the ‘why,’ and develop that mentality of being able to change along with everything else, if your ‘why’ can be that adaptability, then the ‘what’ will follow naturally.”

What are the options moving forward for people like Hoffner’s neighbor Brad, who can’t find a job due to structural unemployment?

“You realize with a guy like [Brad], he can’t [retrain],” Hoffner said. “I want to be optimistic and hopeful, but what are his options? Not much. And this then leads over into the universal basic income argument of ‘if half of us are going to be structurally unemployed, how are we going to put food on the table and pay our rent.’ The government will have to have a massively progressive tax on those people who own the automation, and then redistribute that money to people to cover their basic needs.”

“It’s like a Kurt Vonnegut novel, to be honest,” Hoffner said, “We’re living it.”

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