© Analysis | February 05, 2013

When the robots took our jobs

We live in an age blessed with the rapid advancements of technology. But it is also an age in which a new concern is growing: The age of technological unemployment.
We live in what is probably a very interesting and defining time in human history. Advancements in communication technology have made the world smaller and each year we see new gadgets and machines come to life. But is there a gloomier side to this increasingly advanced technology and AI?

In an ironic twist of events, this has made it possible to move jobs back to the high cost regions of Europe and the U.S.
An image on the television; a huge warehouse filled from bottom to top with spare parts. The shelves reaching up to the highest roof corner in a modernistic industrial building. It does not give away any clues to a new age dawning. At least not at first glance. But it feels empty. Strangely empty even. Small robotic trucks are speeding along the floor, fetching boxes, then carrying it along with a speed that would be hard to match for any human being.

As the historian that I am, a book passage comes to mind. Summarized it said that in the 18th century, almost all of the labor - roughly 90 percent - was done by hand. 300 years later, we are down to 10 percent.

In the last 20 years or so, the computerized society has reformed a lot of the industry we work in. In fact, all manufacturing industries. Automated production (mills, waterwheels, etc.) has been around since ancient times, but for the first time, cheaper model robots are advanced enough to really compete with humans for jobs on a larger scale.

In an ironic twist of events, this has made it possible to move jobs back to the high cost regions of Europe and the U.S. The problem is that - while doing so - we do not necessarily create more jobs for those who were laid off when production moved to other regions. For example, I recently listened to an analyst who said that the American economy is indeed on its way up. But, because of the rapid spread of automated production, unemployment will remain high.

It wouldn’t be fair not to mention the skeptics in this article too. Some analysts believe that the fear is exaggerated. That it has been around ever since the 1930s; that it is just the fear of new technology. Much like people feared the impact of television or computers when they arrived.

However - Andrew McAfee, co-author of the book "Race Against the Machine" - states in an article in Forbes that automation is accelerating like an exponential curve - the low numbers are easy to comprehend: 1, 2, 4 and so forth. But we are now starting to reach a critical point where a tremendous growth can be expected, one that is more difficult to comprehend.

So how are we battling this? No one really knows, of course. Humans will, for years to come, play the largest part in more advanced production, not to mention the R&D-aspects of manufacturing. But, as someone pointed out when Foxconn announced its 'one million robots in production' plan; Foxconn will not transfer all of its 1,2 million strong work force into R&D. Some have even argued that it is in the East rather than the West, that technological unemployment will be the bigger problem.

Will the automated production be a blessing or a curse in the end? Will we create new jobs to replace the ones lost? Participate in the discussion below.

Joakim Johansson
Responsible editor -
© Elke Schröter


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