Robots and artificial intelligence have come a long way since a Roomba entered your home to vacuum your floor and Siri gave you advice on the best Italian restaurants in your parents’ neighborhood.
Cars drive themselves. Robots deliver pizza. A revolution is underway. According to a 2013 University of Oxford study, half of American jobs could be automated within the next two decades. The study identified transportation, logistics and administrative jobs as the most vulnerable to automation. Others assert it is only a matter of time before robots replace teachers, travel agents, interpreters and a host of other professions.
With the prospect of such jobs disappearing, many futurists and economists are considering the possibility of a jobless future. Their predictions of what this would look like usually center around two scenarios: a dystopia where humans no longer have jobs or incomes, leading to increased income inequality and social upheaval, or a utopia where governments give incomes to their citizens, who will then be able to lead more productive, creative and entrepreneurial lives.
I think it’s time to look at this in a different way: Robots in the workforce present an opportunity to stimulate job growth and create new types of work. Robots will not merely take jobs, they’ll also create them.
While technology advances at an unprecedented rate, our era is not the first to undergo significant technological change. From the invention of the wheel to Gutenberg’s printing press, humans have innovated and adapted to new technologies throughout history. And for just as long, there have been concerns about how new technologies would affect laborers.
In each case, these technologies led to new industries and jobs. The invention of the printing press in 1440 allowed the mass production of books, leading to jobs to manufacture books, transport them, market them and sell them. Print shops sprung up. The fall in printing costs led to newspapers. Yes, the printing press put scribes out of business, but new jobs were soon developed to take their place.
For more recent examples, consider agriculture and textiles. In the 1800s, 80 percent of American jobs were on farms. Today, only 2 percent are. Yet as we know, the mechanization of agriculture didn’t ruin the economy. In fact, it continues today, as robots make farming easier and greener.
Around the same time, the textile industry underwent significant technological changes. With the Industrial Revolution came power looms and other mechanical equipment that reduced the need for labor in producing textiles.
Afraid of losing their jobs, Luddites, a group of textile workers and self-employed weavers, protested the use of such machines in England, even destroying them and inciting a rebellion that required military force to suppress. The fact that calling someone a Luddite today is an insult shows how unfounded their concerns were.
We need only look to our past for clues to our future.