A very insightful article that appeared in the Financial Times (August 27, 2019) by Noami Climer, co-chair of the Institute for the Future of Work in the U.K.) expounds on what it means to treat technology as an enabler rather than a threat. Starting with the observation that automation and AI are coming (indeed, they are already here) whether we like it or not, Ms. Climer says that it is up to us to determine whether the inevitable robots replace us at work or make our work happier and more rewarding. According to her: “At the Institute for the Future of Work, we are not very interested in the question of whether new technology is utopian or dystopian — because it tends to be what you do with it that really counts. We are engaged in building the tools and the processes to help employees collaborate in identifying how automation can make work better and more productive, ensuring the jobs we have are good for boss and worker alike…This means designing the technological augmentation of tasks with the experience of workers as the priority: asking how automation can improve workers’ lives and enhance productivity, not how it can simply replace human work or create new processes that alienate human beings from the world of work.” There is no question that FIRe will bring with it massive new automation. There will be a good number of jobs that will disappear. But the real choice will be between human workers left to sweep up after robots have done their jobs and robots who are there to boost happiness and productivity for workers. It is up to us to design the tools and the processes to make sure that digital technology will really be an enabler so that the worker is able to live happier and more productive lives.
In the best seller “Thank You for Being Late” by the famous author Thomas Friedman, we find abundant data that demonstrate that automation and AI do not necessarily lead to the loss of jobs for the entire economy. Some old jobs will disappear, but many more new jobs will be created that will require higher skills. He cites the studies of economist James Bessen, author of “Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth.” The surprising finding is that “employment grows significantly faster in occupations that use computers more.” A very interesting case is the introduction of cash machines, the now ubiquitous ATMs. Bessen’s research concluded that the number of full-time equivalent bank tellers has grown since ATMs were widely deployed during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The explanation is that the ATM allowed banks to operate branch offices at lower cost, which prompted them to open many more branches, offsetting the erstwhile loss in teller jobs. At the same time tellers’ skills changed. Non-routine marketing and interpersonal skills became more valuable. That is, although bank tellers performed relatively fewer routine tasks, their employment increased.
There are other cases in which new technology increased demand for an occupation, offsetting the loss of old jobs. The following are some examples:
–Barcode scanners reduced cashiers’ checkout times by 18 to 19 percent, but the number of cashiers has grown since scanners were widely deployed during the 1980s.
–Since the late 1990s, electronic document discovery software for legal proceedings has grown into a billion-dollar business doing the work done by paralegals, but the number of paralegals has grown robustly.
–E-commerce has also grown rapidly since the late 1990s, now accounting for over 7 percent of retail sales, but the total number of people working in sales occupations has grown since 2000.
Bessen draws an important conclusion from these findings: “Jobs are not going away, but the needed skills for good jobs are going up. Middle-class jobs are being pulled up faster. They require more knowledge and education to perform successfully. To compete for such jobs our youth need more of the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—and more of the four C’s—creativity, collaboration, communication and coding. A real revolution must happen in our educational systems. They must be retooled to maximize the needed skills and attributes of the future generation of workers: strong fundamentals in writing, reading, coding, and math; creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration; grit, self-motivation, and life-long learning habits; and entrepreneurship and improvisation—at every level.” All these will have major implications for the design of our educational system. (To be continued)