Business automation has been the cornerstone of rising productivity that allows for higher wages. The more benefit a company can obtain from a given worker based on automation, the more it can afford to pay that worker. Let’s not get political here over whether companies actually do pay more. That’s a topic for a different blog. Suffice it to say, without automation and productivity, companies can’t afford to increase real wages. If forced to do so, they go out of business, costing all the jobs.
In the past, most automation has been of a physical nature. We had farm equipment, manufacturing machines, and robotics, all of which replaced manual labor with machine labor. Jobs transitioned from physical work to mental work needed to oversee the machines. Also among examples of past automation were clerical functions, such as secretaries, that were taken over by computers. This traded lower skilled mental work for higher skilled programming and oversight work.
Now, we’re entering into a new phase of automation.
As computer programs get more sophisticated and artificial intelligence (AI) gets stronger, they’re moving up the skill curve. Whereas in the past, a robot and a technician might have replaced three workers with one higher-paid employee, today we’re looking at smart computers and AI replacing entire functions and changing the workplace landscape.
Computer automation has already entered into plant scheduling, shipping, and accounting. It has the potential to remove the drudgery of many jobs, as it has the risks of dangerous ones. But by definition, productivity involves doing more with less labor. This translates into jobs going away. In the past, mind jobs expanded as physical agricultural and manufacturing jobs declined. Now, we’re looking at automating mind jobs. What new jobs will replace these?
Certain thoughts have been put forth to deal with such displacement such as reducing the work week to encourage more employment. The problem with this is that the more people employed, the more training costs arise and the greater the coordination needed among the larger work force. This all adds to costs, which reduces the productivity benefit available for higher wages, not to speak of the reduced hours, which will hurt worker income.
There are those who argue that we should put the brakes on innovation so we don’t displace workers. This keeps them in jobs with stagnant wages based on having limited productivity. This raises the question of can we realistically stop the advanced use of AI and robotics in our society? Perhaps we can, but other nations won’t, leaving us in the dustbin of history. The benefits of AI and robotics to those who control it are so great, that any group that falls behind risks staying behind.
More farsighted visionaries point to an interesting aspect of the increased use of artificial intelligence and robotics. That is the prospects of using both to create more wealth that could be distributed to eliminate poverty. If the society can generate enough surpluses with this automation, it should have enough to take care of all citizens. That’s visionary, but not out of the realm of possibility.
An even more visionary take on this is what was hinted at in Star Trek and more fully presented in other science fiction. That is a society in which only one percent of the people have jobs and utilize AI and robotics to produce for the rest. This sounds a bit idealistic to me. When you have a majority of the population not working and demanding lifestyle benefits, what stresses will that put on our social structure. After all, for most of human existence, we’ve found purpose in our work. Going down the path of few people working would require a complete rethinking of societal values and personal worth.