The dire predictions of labour disruption and jobs being lost due to technology advancement is exaggerated, according to a leading U.S. economist.
Robert Atkinson said technology automation will replace some jobs but also create new career opportunities that presently don’t exist, but the idea of it quickly revolutionizing the labour workforce in North America is economic fearmongering.
Atkinson said while scientists and engineers talk about massive worker dislocation due to artificial intelligence and robotic automation, he remains skeptical of such bold predictions based on labour history dating back to the Industrial Revolution in Britain and job skill application realities.
“We have seen this before. Technological advancement brings predictions of massive upheaval in the workforce, particularly in the U.S., but it doesn’t end up happening that way,” Atkinson said.
“Robots simply can’t replace some jobs. You won’t see a robot out fighting a forest fire anytime soon. You won’t see a robotic model walking down the runway in New York or Paris. There are skill and judgment requirements that human beings bring to particular jobs which robots will never duplicate.”
He also cautioned that new technology takes times to work out the kinks and inefficiencies, saying new advancements don’t arrive in fully formed functionality.
“As a leading expert in robotics at MIT has said, just because we developed the internal combustion engine doesn’t mean we will be traveling at warp speed next. Because we have developed technologies with artificial intelligence, it doesn’t mean machines capable of replicating everything human beings can do is just around the corner,” he said.
“That is not the case. The pace of change is always slow. The bottom line is the impacts will be manageable.”
He cited another example of Apple, started by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in the late 1970s, which didn’t fully reach its impact until nearly three decades later.
“You can see that with the driver-less car prototypes now in development. That science is not very good right now. You wouldn’t want to put your child in the backseat of a driver-less car right now and go for a drive. That would be risky and dangerous. It will get better and safer but it will take awhile yet,” he said.
Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a public policy think-tank based in Washington, D.C., was one of the keynote speakers at the recent symposium called Humans, Machines and the Future of Work, hosted by UBC Okanagan.
Atkinson said automation should not be feared or stalled by governments under the guise of protecting existing jobs, as it will help increase stalled productivity overall in both the Canadian and U.S. economies.
“It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why productivity has not increased. If you don’t have robust productivity growth, you can have a robust growth in standard of living or wages. That remains a big challenge given the demographic of baby boomers retiring and leaving the workforce,” he said.
Atkinson offered his advice for government policy makers, starting with don’t panic as Armageddon in the workforce due to automation is not on the immediate horizon.
“You also can’t slow down the rate of innovation through technology. You need automation to improve productivity as the population continues to age,” he said.
“Bill Gates has suggested imposing a tax on robotic job replacement to help retrain people who lose their job to automation but we feel that would be a major mistake. Anything that tempers the stimulation to the economy from automation won’t help raise productivity.”
He also said a universal income, where every adult is guaranteed an income regardless of whether they work or not, would create an enormous tax load on the economy without sound reasoning.
“This premise might work on the belief that a large group of people are suddenly going to become unemployed by technology and require support from the government. But my argument is that we are a long way from that ever happening,” Atkinson argued.
“There is no point in going down that road right now.”
Atkinson sees the biggest challenges that lie ahead for meeting future workforce demands lie in worker skill assessment and retraining, something he said governments have struggled in the U.S. and Canada to implement, and how students are prepared for job skill demands when graduating high school.
“There is a high level of digitization trend going forward with jobs today. The term you hear a lot today is double deep skills, meaning whether you have a job in marketing, accounting, engineering or graphic design, you not only require the skills to do those jobs but the digital competency to carry out those tasks using modern technology.
“If workers don’t have those digital capabilities, they will be in a harder position to get ahead or adapt to workforce changes.”