May 11, 2017

Reading Between the Lines of Automation Employment Forecasts

Potential job losses from automation aren’t a new concern, but the issue has appeared to spike in the last few months with a spate of new studies that forecast how automation will affect work in different global regions and sectors. If you take a quick glance at the headlines, the situation looks distressing, and headlines seem aimed to produce maximum alarm: Special Report: Automation Puts Jobs in Peril!Robots Do Destroy Jobs and Lower Wages, Says New Study. Automation Could Slash Jobs in Developing Countries.

A look behind the headlines reveals more nuance though. For starters, quantified predictions about the numbers of potential jobs lost are only calculations about whether the technology exists to replace a certain task or occupation. When you dig behind the numbers, the number of factors required to implement automation in the workplace multiplies considerably: legislation and regulation, affordability, and specific business considerations all have an important role to play.

The best prediction to date may come from a study on artificial intelligence and automation completed last December by the Council of Economic Advisors under the Obama Administration, which said that, “Given the available evidence, it is not possible to make specific predictions. So policy makers must be prepared for a range of potential outcomes” in the United States.  This is largely because of additional critical factors, such as “other forms of technological change, globalization, reduction in market competition and worker bargaining power, and the effects of past public policy choices.”

This is a version of good news. It tells us that policy planners, business owners and not least, citizens and workers, have agency and options about how best and at what pace to implement automated labor.  The alarmist language in the headlines that tells us that the machines are in charge and coming for our jobs isn’t quite right. And it certainly isn’t good for us. It paralyzes us into thinking that we are endangered and helpless victims of a force that lies beyond us. But paralysis is probably a quick route to unpleasant and possible large scale disruption. Why not choose wise and coordinated collaboration across sectors to better manage the shift to highly automated economies?

I have compiled a 1-page reference page of the current predictions and links to recent major studies. If you’d like to download it for yourself, you can find it here.

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