Technology grows more powerful and complex every day, and there have been increasing efforts to automate certain repetitive tasks. In the near future, we may be able to look at fully automated assembly lines. While most companies are concentrating on what this means for their budgets, automation could very well be a threat to jobs around the world.
Even in the technology industry, we have taken for granted the ability to send email and run credit card information. Before these innovations, humans had to manually process requests and information. It was their job. But according to TechRepublic, this recent trend toward automation might put several workers out of a job in the future. We’ve seen well-known companies produce quality automated technology, such as Google’s self-driving automobile and the Jeopardy-star supercomputer, Watson. Even in warehouses there have been breakthroughs in automation. Kiva Systems has even designed robots to lift items and move them to and from shelves.
So, what could be in store for those of us in the technology industry? How long will it be before automation replaces workers in the office? Should this even be a cause for concern?
Then Versus Now
The advent of new technology in the past didn’t destroy jobs, but simply shifted the positions to a different location. For example, look at the steam engine. Instead of needing drivers for horse-drawn carriages, skilled engineers who understood the way that the steam engine worked became necessary. However, Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims that today’s situation is much different due to the ever-expanding nature of technology. He says that this, alongside increasingly intelligent computers, are able to eliminate certain procedures once known to be human-operated.
One of the biggest reasons Brynjolfsson thinks this situation is possible is because of the incredible difference between the industrial revolution and the information age. When comparing the two, Brynjolfsson states:
I think it’s going to require a similar level of overall change but it’s probably going to have to happen faster. The steam engine was a remarkable breakthrough and really set off the industrial revolution, but […] it doubled in power and efficiency approximately once every 70 years and quadrupled after 140 years. The computer processor doubles in power every 18 months, 10 times greater every five years, it’s a very different scale of advancement and it’s affecting a broader set of the economy than the steam engine did, in terms of all the cognitive tasks. It’s happening a lot faster and more pervasively than before.
In other words, technology accelerates at a much faster rate than industrial equipment did over 100 years ago. But not everyone is so convinced that this trend is significantly threatening to future workers. Nick Jennings, a professor of Computer Science at Southampton University, feels that automation will change some things, but the number of jobs available is not one of them:
[I don’t see] major shifts, no. I see a gradual increase in automation and a gradual increase in the software tools that people have to support them in their day-to-day work. I don’t see any non-linearities, I see processing getting better, speeds getting better, more data becoming available and us running more complicated algorithms on that data. I don’t see anything that is going to cause a phase change or a disjunction in one go.
Has A Problem Already Surfaced?
In the past, a country’s productivity had increased when the number of workers increased, but that’s no longer the case. Over the past decade and a half, the amount of productivity has increased substantially with no effect on the overall employment. This gap has continued to grow wider with no job creation detected. The ratio has decreased significantly over the past several years, but these trends don’t seem to be a cause for concern at the moment.
Other trends, however, have surfaced which illustrate what could potentially happen in the future. A similar situation occurred with the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States. The average income of the top 10 percent of Americans is more than nine times that of the poorest citizens. This all occurred while the median minimum wage barely increased at all (approximately 0.1 percent per year).
According to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief, “the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.”
Brynjolfsson feels that certain jobs, like those in call centers and other similar routine positions, will be affected the most by this development.
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