The Impact of Technological Unemployment
Robot News & Robot Jobs
In the early nineteenth century, angry textile workers began a series of raids across Northern England They broke into factories, and smashed weaving machines with sledgehammers. The Luddite Rebellion had begun. The movement was a culmination of social unrest largely caused by poor working conditions and decreasing wages. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, manufacturers were turning to mechanized production in order to keep costs down. The demand for skilled weavers was dying out, leaving the livelihood of the workers in the balance. The Luddites became a symbol of the rejection of technology, particularly for fear of the toll it will take on the economic welfare of the working class.
The Luddite movement inspired subsequent labor movements throughout Europe and across the globe, although in the end it did little for the textile workers. There was no stopping industrial change. Machines replaced the weavers, and have eliminated many other vocations since. Eventually, new machines would replace the old.
Every major development in technology makes something else become obsolete. Entire careers vanish and people lose jobs. We can sympathize with the personal plight of those who are affected. In today's world of rapid growth, this happens quite often, and many of us have been impacted at some point.
On the whole, industrial change has done far more good than harm. As old skills become obsolete, new skills are required to fill the gaps created by emerging technology. Automation of labor has led to decreased costs of production, which has caused greater welfare for society. Diseases have been cured, life prolonged, and quality of life increased dramatically.
The notion that new technology will hurt economic conditions has become known as the 'Luddite Fallacy.' Transition can be rough, but the market adapts, as do people.
Today, however, we are facing a different kind of technological change. The Artificial Intelligence boom of recent years has raised fear that smart machines will replace the need for human workers. The fear is legitimate. The innovations of the past were merely changes in the means of production. Textile machines still required supervision and maintenance. But Artificial Intelligence is adaptive itself. It is conceivable that machines will someday be capable of maintaining and even improving themselves.
The human workforce isn't going to disappear anytime in the foreseeable future. Machines still need to be programmed and guided, and require highly skilled workers to support them. There will always be jobs of some kind.
Nonetheless, a colossal invasion of the job market is at our feet. Robots are being designed that will replace hundreds of thousands&emdash;or millions&emdash;of workers within the next few decades. Mass unemployment is something society will have to deal with.
The market has always adapted, sooner or later. Although, looking ahead several decades, we cannot presume that the situation will improve. Artificial Intelligence is growing at such an extreme rate that once we adapt to the first wave of technological unemployment, there will be more difficult circumstances to face.
If current trends continue (famous words, I admit), a new era will be upon us shortly. Machines will take on major production throughout the world. Robots will construct buildings, grow crops, and manufacture clothing, electronics, cars, and other durable goods. Sophisticated applications will be performing most, if not all, service jobs. Complicated functions will be handled by smarter software, replacing the need for financial accountants, business consultants, chemists, and even actuarial analysts.
The virtual end of work could be a reality within several decades. That may not be a bad thing.
A possible result is that everybody benefits. When machines are providing everything we need, there will be no reason to work. People will be free to do nothing, or to enjoy the pursuit of their personal ambitions. Creativity and artistic ventures will skyrocket, resulting in a new era of renaissance. A person will be able to go anywhere and do anything he wishes. That doesn't sound so bad.
A more plausible outcome is far less optimistic. As smart machines replace the workforce, who will really benefit? Patent, copyright, and other laws that govern Intellectual Property protect and encourage invention and innovation under our current context. Those same laws will warrant that all software and machines will be owned, leased, or sold by the entities that created them. Most of the world's wealth will go to three groups: capital investors, business managers, and engineers, and even among them, only those who capture a significant market share will profit. This new oligarchy will control the wealth, and with it, power. The future will belong to them.
So what about the rest of us? It is unlikely that the vast majority of the world's population will remain impoverished, at least not forever. Extreme inequality breeds political unrest. At some point, Intellectual Properties would be seized and nationalized. Libertarian ideology gives way to utilitarian promises when the masses revolt. Our future may be precarious. It is certainly uncertain.
All of this is pure conjecture, of course. And yet, an Artificial Intelligence revolution of some sort remains imminent. When it happens, the world will be changed forever. Whatever our status, we will have to adapt or become insignificant. There will be new challenges, unlike any we have seen before. The future will require new and inventive solutions. Perhaps we can find a way, as a race, to benefit from change. We have before.