The rapid advancement of technology has always brought with it the fear of permanent worker displacement. As the economy changes, entire sectors risk becoming obsolete; likewise, workers worry about fading demand for their experience and skills. These changes can be slow, taking place over decades, or rapid, taking place over a few years.
This cycle has accompanied economic development throughout human history. One recent example is the rise of Netflix and the decline of Blockbuster. Another example is the disruptive presence of Uber on local taxi cartels. Although these changes have generally improved life for consumers, nostalgia and concern for the workers left behind often remain.
Traditionally, the fear of automation has been a problem for low-skilled workers, such as cashiers and call center representatives. Recently, the rise in machine learning and artificial intelligence has initiated fears that even high-skilled workers are being threatened by automation.
This fear has been echoed by many of the world's brightest entrepreneurs, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and academics, including Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Management. However, as conjecture about an automation doomsday proliferates within the media, the hard facts are being ignored.
Stories about mechanization often sow the seeds of fear at the expense of ignoring efficiency gains. For example, the utilization of artificial intelligence in law has been cited as evidence that even lawyers should worry about job security, but this narrative overlooks the potential gains of automated innovation. Those gains include allowing lawyers to handle more cases, increasing legal teams’ speed and accuracy, alleviating pressure on public defenders, and lowering the cost of legal services so that representation becomes more affordable.
The mutual benefits of automation can be seen when looking at recent advancements in tax preparation. Excel, Quickbooks and Turbotax substantially changed the accounting industry by streamlining and automating many of their accounting functions, removing the need for customers to speak with an accountant. These changes helped consumers without diminishing the demand for accountants. In fact, growth projections for the field have remained largely unaffected.
Moreover, the technology to replace low-skilled workers has been available for well over a decade, but there has been no measurable impact on job creation. Many of us prefer speaking with a customer service representative than a machine. We enjoy human interaction at reputable restaurants and hotels, and we form attachments with bartenders who listen when we are drinking alone. There is a real demand for human interaction, and businesses who satisfy that demand will be rewarded by consumers.
The fear of automation has been around since the mechanization of farming equipment. Despite this persisting fear, the rise of machines has not stopped job creation. Moreover, new research has emerged on how companies invest in labor (employee wages) and capital (assets such as equipment). Labor’s falling share of the national income has been well-documented, but employers may not be increasing their investment in capital, which would be expected if companies were eager to replace workers with robots.
Machines and artificial intelligence have the potential to increase worker productivity and make our lives easier and safer. People’s apprehension stems from the universal fear of the unknown. No one knows what tomorrow’s economy will look like, but historical trends and current data show us that society rewards those who embrace – not fear – innovation.