Technology stealing people’s jobs is a notion that probably dates back to the invention of the wheel. After all, it took four bearers to carry the emperor and only one to pull a chariot!
The problem is that most people stop thinking after the first domino falls instead of following the entire progression. Let’s look at the next few dominoes: Once the wheel is invented, more people can travel comfortably, goods can be carried farther, better roads are built and commerce thrives. A few bearers of the ruling class have to find new work, the remainder of the world benefits, and thousands of jobs are created.
Now, let’s fast-forward through history and take a look at the tractor. It happens that my grandfather bred workhorses. My family’s oral history has it that upon the introduction of Henry Ford’s tractor in the Twenties, the price of workhorses dropped 10% per week. The result was that my grandfather lost his farm, and moved his family to Florida, where my father at age 14 had the only job in this family of six delivering newspapers. However, the advent of the tractor and modern farming techniques transformed the US from a country where 40% of the population needed to farm, to one in which 2% of the population could feed the other 98%. Not good news for John Deere, but this freed a larger proportion of young adults to attend college and to start the computer revolution that has created millions of jobs in the US and worldwide.
Did people lose jobs to computers? Yes, a number of secretaries had to upgrade their skills, and executives who refused to learn to type had a tough time of it. But these jobs were replaced by tens of thousands of high-paying software engineering positions, plus computer installers, computer operators, data storage firms and more.
Simplistic thinking visualizes a fixed pool of jobs, with new technology taking some away. In reality, new technologies expands the pool of jobs and creates new opportunities for our children. In the case of robots, the immediate new jobs involve designing, building, programming, integrating, installing, servicing, maintaining, managing and refining the machines. The robots themselves will enable humans to work in hostile environments where they could never work before - farming the ocean floor, mining deep in the Earth, manufacturing in Space, storing in the Antarctic, all become realistic endeavors. Building on nano- and cosmic scales become practicable.
Those that believe that with the introduction of robots jobs levels will stay the same except that robots will take over many of them, should take a look around them. If technology displaces jobs and makes people poorer, would we not find evidence of that all around us? If so, technology-poor countries would have full employment and technology-rich countries would have the lowest GDP per person. Instead, the ‘poor’ in technology-rich nations often own cars and televisions, have a roof over their head and food for their tables.
Of course, it could be argued that material wealth does not make for spiritual wealth; but that’s a matter for philosophers to wrestle with. And certainly there is room for improving systems for helping those in transition between jobs. But finding evidence that technological advance decreases the number of available jobs is very difficult. Technology raises the floor for all; it is the great uplifter.
Jeanne Dietsch is CEO & Co-Founder of Amherst, New Hampshire based Mobile Robotis, Inc., a designer and manufacturer of intelligent mobile robots, as well as sensing, navigation and control products. She can be reached at jdietsch[@]mobilerobots[dot]com.