Saturday, February 20, 2016

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Future of Work

I went to see a the keynote address of Rise of the Robots. Technology and the Future of Work presented by Martin Ford at Mount Holyoke College this weekend. Ford is an entrepreneur and author who has brought to light a selection of very interesting trends in employments and their relation to automation.

For nearly any employee in almost every occupation there is always the possibility that a new technology will automate some task that their position previously required a human to achieve. We have now reached the point where there are very few tasks that humans can accomplish that machines cannot. In his presentation, Ford points out that the perceived threat of automation to the workforce is nothing new. Automation has been replacing jobs since the turn of the century. Industrialization in the United States replaced countless jobs that were previously done by hand by factory workers.

As it currently stands, it is not a question off whether robots will replace blue collar jobs in the future. All occupations will be effected in some way. Ford points out that in an ideal scenario, an employee would be re-trained for a higher level position once their job was replaced by an automated process. Unfortunately, this is not the case within many companies. In the past there was a direct correlation between an increase in employee productivity (as a result of technological improvements) and the pay that the employee received. This makes a lot of sense because it only seems reasonable that as a productivity increases, the company's profits increase. As a result, employees should see a returned increase of their share of that success. This was true until 2006, when the average amount of payment that employees receive in proportion to the productivity of employees stopped following that trend. While employee productivity continues to increase, wages have remained relatively unchanged.

The real threat to employment does not appear to be automation itself, but automation that makes employees less valuable. In the past, an individual who was trained to use a particular tool or technology was valued by a company and could expect a higher wage because of their skill or knowledge. This is no longer the case because as computers get more advanced, the process of automating task requires little or no human supervision or insight.

The explosion of advances in automation and artificial intelligence have created some difficulties for companies. Why should a corporation employ a human worker rather than a robot that will never get tired or hurt and can perform in a superior manner to their human counterpart? In the future, it appears that the wide availability of robotic technologies will make it such that it it will not be profitable for companies to employ workers.

It is possible that increased advances in technology will create new job opportunities within fields that are impossible to predict at the current time. Just as a job as a social media marketer could never have been anticipated as a possible career several years ago, it is possible that new research into synthetic biology or nanotechnology will yield new occupations for the next generation of workers.

At this point in the discussion, one begins to wonder if there will be any limitation to what can possible be accomplished with technology. It is not unlikely that the computer architects of the future will be other computers, creating new systems that are far more efficient than themselves which will then, it turn, go on to repeat the process.

Ford concluded with some very interesting suggestions about how we can possibly overcome the possible perils of total automation. He suggests the concept of decoupling jobs from income. He stresses the importance of consumerism that is required for an economy to function. Machines do not consume, so a guaranteed minimum income could be one possible solution to help prevent inflation at the hands of an automated economy.