Are you a truck driver? How about a retail clerk, bank teller, tax preparer? Or even a doctor, lawyer, or accountant? If so, a robot may be coming to take your job away in the near future.
That is the premise of a new e-book called “Race Against the Machine” by MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, which is available on Amazon. In their book, they argue that our current unemployment problems are not just due to job outsourcing, but also to the rapid pace of technology, and most people’s inability to keep up with it.
In the past, technological innovations tended to destroy jobs when they were first introduced. The invention of the grain thresher ended employment for 25% of the agricultural workers that had been needed to bring in the crops. But there has always been a net gain of jobs in the long run, as new technologies created jobs in fields that had not existed before.
In their book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee make the case that these days, machines are increasingly able to perform tasks in which humans were once unquestioned masters. And corporations are eager to replace workers, with their irritating need for pay, health care, and retirement plans, with robots and computers who will work 24 hours a day without complaining, and in many cases do a job much better than humans can. This is leading to a situation where those who have the capital to invest in machines are reaping all the financial benefits, while workers are increasingly being pushed into the generally lower paying jobs that machines cannot do well, like home health care, cleaning, fixing cars, or anything that needs both physical and problem-solving skills.
This is bad news for the middle class in our country. Once upon a time, someone with a high school education could get a factory job, and earn enough to buy a house and a car, raise a family, and retire with savings and a pension. Even my job, musician and songwriter, once paid enough to stay firmly in the middle class. But at the speed technology is advancing, I’ll probably wake up tomorrow morning to find someone has written an app for iPhone that will compose a custom song to your specifications. (If that hasn’t already happened)
We are already dealing directly with robots now in our everyday lives, when we get cash from an automatic teller, or pay for groceries or a plane ticket at a self-service kiosk. Users of the new iPhone can interact with Siri, a program that uses advanced pattern recognition software to seem almost human at times. Google has developed software to allow a robot to drive a vehicle more safely than a human can. And this is just the beginning.
No wonder the Occupy Wall Street folks are upset. They can see a future in which ordinary Americans are increasingly superfluous, and wealth continues to flow upward to the owners of capital. All we can do is get the education needed to compete in this new economy, and hope that new technologies will again lead to employment in fields that have not even been imagined yet.
(This blog post was written entirely by Frank Michels’ blog-writing robot, Wingnut.)