Automation has been the focus of much debate recently, with concerns of job displacement weighing heavily on the minds of millennials, who will be the first to feel the effects of this new digital economy. A 2018 report by Forrester Research concluded that our fear of automation is an unfounded “scare tactic,” and optimistically predicted a “more nuanced future.” Ironically, Forrester’s own cheery forecast makes a rather compelling case for why automation is going to destroy jobs, and doesn’t give us any reasons to think that’s not actually something to be scared about.
The report says that an estimated 22.7 million jobs will be lost to automation by 2025, or roughly 16% of the American workforce. And, while automation will create 13.6 million jobs programming and servicing our robot overlords, the report indicates the overall effect will be negative: a loss of over 9.1 million American jobs within six years, or 7% of the total workforce.
Over 9 million jobs lost to automation
The report offers a fairly conservative analysis of all the tasks that computers will soon be doing, from warehouse labor like picking and stocking Amazon deliveries, to service roles like greeting customers at Walmart and showing them where to find products. It also shows how some jobs are less at risk, because they involve higher-level human cognition, such as aesthetic judgment, trouble-shooting, creativity and a fundamental understanding of human psychology. Marketing and graphic design, for instance, are two fields that can be complemented by automation, but not replaced by it. Contrast that to critics of AI and automation, who claim even seemingly complex vocations like chefs and truck drivers will be entirely displaced by automation within the next decade and a half.
Humans: Learn to code
Forrester’s case against the “scaremongers” is anything but convincing. It says the “worst-case scenarios play off of cultural and psychological anxieties”–which is perhaps true, but isn’t an argument for why we’re wrong to be anxious. It says “job loss numbers make better headlines than job creation estimates”–which is at best debatable. I bet I could write an article focusing on the fact robots will “create millions of jobs” and people would read it. Would it be a compelling read, or tell you anything you didn’t already know? Well, that’s an argument I’m not prepared to wager my reputation on. Forrester further asserts “rebellion and backlash against automation have a long history,” when, in fact, technology has been a net job creator over time. Again, that is also true, but not an argument for why automation won’t be different this time. Strawmanning is a tactic employed by those who sense they have already lost the debate. Indeed, there are moments in history when automation has really made a difference, as Forrester is constantly reminding us in their own report.
A growing number of detractors—including Elon Musk, who has repeatedly warned us about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence—worry that automation could disrupt entire communities and disproportionately affect low-income earners and farmers. We have entered an age where hardware is increasingly imbued with AI, and this convergence will only become more pronounced with time. Andrew Yang, a former tech executive turned 4chan meme, believes that automation and advanced artificial intelligence will soon make millions of jobs obsolete — yours, mine, your paralyzingly boring, living cardboard cutout of a friend, Brian the accountant, as well as X-Ray technicians, stock brokers, waiters, radiologists and cashiers. He says America needs to take radical steps to prevent Great Depression-level unemployment and a total societal meltdown, including handing out trillions of dollars in cash in the form of a Universal Basic Income.
The Great Contraction
“All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society,” Yang said over lunch at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan last month, in his first in-person interview about his 2020 presidential campaign. In just a few years, he said, “we’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work who are 94 percent male, with an average level of education of high school or one year of college.”
Yang certainly isn’t wrong, but let me tell you a dirty secret spoken only in hushed tones about self-driving vehicles: there won’t be enough technicians to service them, because that’s a skilled trade program with a steep learning curve. Trained professionals in the industry can’t afford to live close enough to the cities where they would work because of the skyrocketing cost of housing, and because society has stigmatized career and vocational training in the United States in a way that is wildly self-defeating. We don’t pay these people enough, and we don’t encourage young adults to pursue vocational training the way we push the “need” for a college education.
“That one innovation,” Yang continued, “will be enough to create riots in the street. And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.” Millions of hipsters will be unable to afford their daily dose of vape oil, weed and soy lattes if they can’t rely on a no-barrier-to-entry job at McDonald’s or driving their mom’s car for Uber.
Alarmist? Definitely. But Yang’s doomsday prophecy echoes the concerns of a growing number of young Americans who are deeply concerned about the coming economic consequences of AI and automation. This concern is one of the primary causes of Yang’s out of left-field campaign popularity. Boomers are retiring, and they’re not worried about job displacement. But millennials are facing down the barrel of the proverbial gun, and nobody else in the political realm is talking about how to address this issue. They feel like they’re being left behind from the American dream, and this report underscores the obvious: that many of these same people are in the crosshairs of the impact of automation.
Despite the verbal sedatives employed by Forrester’s well-paid soothsayers, the AI revolution will overtake the global economy much faster than the innovations of its predecessor, the Industrial Revolution, and on a much grander scale.
Forrester Research wants to present itself as a calmer, more “objective” sort of futurist. But the message of its report is pretty clear: technology is going to destroy more jobs than it’s going to create. Yes, that’s something that should scare us.