Last month, Walmart told their greeters their jobs would be eliminated. With all the talk about the economy creating full employment for anyone willing to work, it is especially disappointing Walmart made this decision.
I started thinking about the other disturbing employment trend: Robots. Also known as artificial intelligence (AI), machines are being built capable of thinking, acting, and learning like humans. Robotics, which deals with the design, construction, operation, and use of robots, has been around in practice since the 1970s, but Leonardo da Vinci designed a humanoid robot in 1495. Robots are used for a variety of operations, from building cars and disassembling bombs to performing surgeries.
A 2018 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) forecasts that 50% of all work tasks will be capable of being carried out by machines by 2025. That equates to a loss or displacement of 75 million jobs worldwide. That’s the equivalent of the aggregate populations of Canada and California. The report then suggests that 133 million human jobs will be created in the next six years, which pencils out to two new jobs for every job loss.
Unless society creates an influx of social media influencers and Uber drivers, the math doesn’t work. Where are humans going to work? For those lucky to find employment, paychecks could potentially shrink because the human’s worth will be devalued by robots. That scenario could lead to a lower standard of living, more income inequality, and in the worst case, the complete disappearance of the middle class.
The chairman of the WEF noted the increase in AI would require greater investment in training and education to help workers adapt. The federal government has been talking about job training for decades as we have transitioned from a primarily manufacturing-based to a service-based economy. In what has been commonly referred by sociologists as the post-industrial society, the blue-collar labor force must be repurposed into an increasingly white-collar economic system which will be expedited by the development of AI.
It is hard to imagine how 150 million Americans sitting in front of a computer screen can be productive enough to push Gross Domestic Product to a level we need to grow the country. This growth is necessary to spur innovation which creates more efficient products. Without innovation, we would not have automobiles, airplanes, television, computers, and smartphones.
Some people make the argument that there will be a need for humans to fix and maintain the robots. Fine, but we won’t need one mechanic per robot. A mechanic may be able to handle a client base of 100 robots. But what if the robots get so sophisticated that they fix themselves? Then what?
Others contend robots will hasten the human race’s mass retirement, and we can then sit in our boats sipping a glass of wine and waxing poetic about the good old days of working. That would not work for me. There are a finite number of bowling leagues to join and baseball games to attend. That sounds like a great life until the money runs out. Most humans need to be wanted and productive. A world of robots can have a deleterious effect on all of us.
Will we ever see a World Series between the San Francisco Giant Cyborgs against the New York Yankee Droids? Maybe not, but no doubt robots would be cheaper than today’s professional athletes. Don’t give the team owners any ideas.
David M. Green