Is Technology Destroying or Creating Jobs?
- By Mr. Sanjay Sehgal, Chairman and CEO, MSys Group
Every single technology dystopian movie, has preyed on a single human fear – when computers take over, human beings will become redundant.
The Matrix trilogy, Terminator, Robocop, I-Robot, or even that disaster of a film where human beings aspired to a crime-free world by arresting “criminals” on their potential to commit crime; all spoke to that fear of computers tyrannically ruling the earth, and served as symbolic cautionary tales of retaining control of technology, firmly in human hands.
But at the end of the day, in every single one of these movies, human beings triumph. And that’s the point.
The rhetoric of the fear of automation is one you’ll hear in campaign promises, in old union workers’ tales, and of course in the movies. And while to a certain extent, this fear is not unfounded, no one can solely and utterly attribute rising unemployment to an increasing automation.
But as the pandemic rages, and industries deal with its fallout, job losses continue to mount, and economies lurch their way to a semblance of normalcy, the debate over technology taking over our jobs, making human effort redundant has gained new and fertile ground.
But the argument saying automation or technology is destroying jobs is riddled with holes.
Automation has redirected human effort, saving human beings from repetitive, menial, and often dangerous tasks. No one talks of the number of slaves who died while building the pyramids, or the number of people who are permanently disabled from working on the assembly line in unsafe conditions. In the USA for instance, the majority of workplace injuries and fatalities take place among those involved in manual labor.
So really, in that case, automation is a life-saving development.
The most significant hole in the argument, however, is that manpower is still required for operating the automation process.
The thing that no one making the “lost jobs” argument talks about is that automation has in fact created jobs. More than they were before.
Take for example, the most famous example of the assembly line – the automotive industry – or cars. Prior to the industrial revolution, a single artisan crafted every individual part and assembled a single piece. Each piece was unique. With the industrial revolution, individual parts were manufactured en masse, and a team of workers would assemble the entire piece, bringing time down to a couple of hours. Standardization became the new norm.
But these workers on the assembly line still had to learn how to manufacture, and assemble.
A single car today is an engineering miracle. There are the mechanical parts, the computerized parts, the software and hardware in our entertainment systems, and even telecommunications embedded in our emergency systems. And there are teams of people who are needed to work together to operate the systems that make, and then assemble all of these systems to work synchronously in a single car.
Automation helps in being able to produce cars faster, and making them safer, and ensuring that each car is the same as the other coming off that assembly line; all of which keep prices down.
And much more people than ever before are required in the process. The thing is, all of these people need much more by way of specialized training and skills than before. So, when people talk about the loss of jobs accompanying automation, understand that this is simply the loss of manual unskilled jobs.
On the plus side, what automation has done, is increase the demand for skilled labor, and a new appreciation for creativity and personalization. The limited point here is that while automation has taken away some kinds of jobs it has also created many others that are lot more rewarding.
I would go a step further and say that automation has been the driver for a whole new generation of jobs that has contributed diligently to the evolution of mankind.
China’s economy has been completely driven by its manufacturing sector. While China became a manufacturing hub for many reasons, automation and cheap labor were the primary ones. Developed economies shifted their manufacturing units to China, while retaining copyright and technological knowhow themselves. This created more jobs in these countries requiring advanced technological knowledge. Education and research, along with the industries that benefitted directly from this education and research made sure to open doors to the best people from all over the world to work together.
With its younger population and emphasis on higher education, India is a country that greatly benefitted from automation integration.
In 2017, the IT industry provided direct employment to almost four million people and indirect employment to more than 10 million people. And yet, many shortsightedly fear AI is going to end the IT industry’s joyride and render many jobless.
Shortsighted, because industry insiders already know that the next generation will have a higher demand for more automation, more AI and more technological knowhow. Even agricultural production and farming is now increasingly automated. But the next generation is already being prepared. There are apps for instance, that incorporate learning code for children.
The demand for “smart” technology, or another word for AI (that is less offensive to some people, and hence adopted instead) requires more people to learn to develop and refine these technologies. There is a nonstop need for training, for data, for maintenance, and for taking care of all the exceptions that are happening with AI. And overall, AI will require a new generation of policy, regulation and updates, which incorporate equity and diversity. And that really is one of the strongest affirmations in favor of automation. Automation helps those with disabilities, does not see skin color, and makes technology cheaper overall, distributing knowledge and information to all.
There are no limits to how technology can assist humanity. And it is time for humanity to learn to harness it better. In medicine, surgery requires tools. But it is the skill of the surgeon that makes surgery successful. And in the end, what we have to remember technology, AI, automation, all of these are tools that we as humans can wield to make our lives richer.