The robots are coming—and according to some experts, they’re here to take our jobs. Artificial intelligence and automation have made our world an increasingly futuristic wonder to behold. However, some “experts” still apparently worry such a future is a dystopian one—where robots, AI and automation will slowly phase out Americans workers, costing tens of millions of jobs in the decade ahead.
It’s not hard to see why these warnings are taken seriously. After all, Amazon is on the verge of opening up “cashierless” stores—grocery stores where customers are free to waltz in, grab their products, and walk out without ever needing to interact with a minimum-wage teller, cashier clerk or even a self-checkout kiosk. Such AI-powered shopping, if successfully implemented by Amazon, will soon be adopted by other retailers—and eventually even small businesses.
It’s a great concept for the modern consumer. But what about the cashiers who used to make a living price-checking our organic free-range groceries? Such innovations that eliminate the need for low-skill labor aren’t limited to Amazon’s futuristic grab-and-go store concept. Indeed, this kind of automation has been creeping into the economy for years.
Just last year, for example, the Culinary Union forced a number of casinos to include in their labor contracts protections for workers who are at risk of being replaced by AI or automation. Specifically, the union was worried about an emerging trend in the hospitality industry of replacing human bartenders with cheap kiosks that mix drinks automatically as cocktail waitresses take orders.
Who knew our dystopian robot-run future would start by replacing mixologists with Jack-and-Coke machines? Nonetheless, to the people who might find themselves replaced by such technology, the threat certainly does feel apocalyptic. And, jokes aside, it certainly seems like experts—economists, labor leaders and futurists—might have a point when they warn of massive joblessness as a result of similar job-killing technology advancements.
Or do they? After all, disruption in the job market isn’t new. American agriculture—an industry that once employed roughly 90 percent of Americans—has been dealing with this kind of labor-reducing technology for more than a century. Today, a mere 5-8 percent of Americans are employed directly in “agriculture,” despite the fact that it produces and delivers more products than any other time in history.
What used to take multiple laborers days if not weeks to accomplish, can now be done more efficiently in a single afternoon by a lone farmer with a piece of GPS-guided harvesting equipment. And yet, this amazing progress, complete with its drastic reduction of needed manhours, hasn’t resulted in a national economy where the vast majority of Americans are suddenly left unemployed after failing to find work as a farmhand.
Far from decimating our economy, the advancements in agriculture have been an incredible boost to consumers, business owners and workers alike. The low-skill employment opportunities that have occurred as a result of this prosperity are far more preferable to the back-breaking tasks of early 20th century agricultural work.
Over the course of the last half century, we have seen a similar transformation in another major American industry: Manufacturing. Assembly line workers have been replaced by robotic arms, and shift managers have been replaced by algorithms. Nonetheless, the American workforce, as a whole, has soldiered on. The reason for this is simple to understand: Automation in manufacturing might have killed the need to have a human assemble steering columns for Chevy Impalas, but that doesn’t mean generations of workers will never find work simply because robots are now doing the jobs their grandfathers once did in Detroit.
Instead, new entrants to the job market “learn to code,” and the result has been cheaper goods, more prosperity and better jobs.
In short, like agriculture or manufacturing, the advancement of automation elsewhere in the economy shouldn’t concern the “experts.” To overcome whatever challenges are presented by this technological progress is an understanding that the skills needed to be successful as a worker are ever-changing.
Yes, the robots are coming—but the idea that they will murder the American dream is something best left to science fiction
Michael Schaus is Communications Director, Nevada Policy Research Institute