Szuhaj: The Robots are Coming

Automation threatens American jobs —and a backward gaze won’t help.

by Ben Szuhaj | 4/28/17 12:30am

Nothing is more in vogue than claiming that America is getting a “bad deal” because of free trade and all of the nasty pitfalls of globalization — namely, that ugly beast “outsourcing.” The truth is that 88 percent of American manufacturing jobs are lost to automation, not to foreigners or illegal immigrants.

This is not necessarily bad: technological innovation always necessitates a degree of economic reorganization. In a free-market economy, people who are laid off by companies that are choosing to innovate will find new, more valuable ways to contribute to the economy. However, in reality, some percentage of the unemployed will either be unable or unwilling to retrain. When technological innovation necessitates economic reorganization in small amounts, the economy can handle the shift, but if a significant amount of people become unemployed in a short period of time, the economy is thrown into a crisis.

We must now consider this threat. The technology that would replace American workers with automatons already exists. If unaddressed, millions of Americans could find themselves unemployed in a matter of months, tens of millions in a matter of years. Will our society, as it currently governs itself and distributes wealth, be able to absorb this shift?

The American transportation industry is enormous, accounting for $1 out of every $10 produced in the U.S. economy. A subset of the transportation industry, trucking, could lose 8.7 million American jobs. With the advent of self-driving cars, those jobs are in jeopardy. Trucking is a dangerous profession. According to Daimler AG, an automobile company which has already developed a self-driving truck, there were 330,000 large trucks involved in crashes in 2012 alone, killing around 4,000 people and almost entirely caused by driver error. The beauty of self-driving cars is that they don’t get drowsy or distracted. They don’t text and drive. They can anticipate accidents and make the proper corrections with the speed and accuracy humans cannot match. And the more self-driving automobiles there are on the road together, the safer the system becomes, since they can communicate with each other to avoid problems and hold a constant speed, which reduces fuel consumption. In the same way traditional automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages, self-driving vehicles can replace traditional automobiles as a superior method of transportation.

This is bad news for truck drivers. Until recently, truck driving seemed like a fairly secure profession. The average driver brings home about $40,000 a year, which is more than 46 percent of all tax filers. Truck driving is one of the last American occupations that rewards a middle-class salary without requiring a college degree — yet it is about to become obsolete.

If trucking companies chose to automate, those 8.7 million people will need to find new jobs. The traditional answer is that those workers should retrain or pursue opportunities of higher education, granting them access to better, more secure careers. Each of these proposals is faulty, especially now that even those jobs requiring a college degree are not safe from automation.

In 2015, National Public Radio published a calculator that estimates the likelihood of any common American job being automated within 20 years. “Packaging and filling machine operator” has a 98.0 percent chance of becoming automated — no surprise there. But jobs like paralegal and legal assistant or budget analyst? Those have 94.5 percent and 93.8 percent chances of being automated, respectively. Working in a field that relies on human empathy and interaction means having a job almost certainly secure from robotic replacement. Social workers in mental health and substance abuse fields, for instance, have a 0.3 percent chance of being booted by a robot. While reassuring for some, this should not serve as a comfort for us all. Researchers at Oxford University have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next 20 years.

It is tempting to assume that, with robots taking over most of our labor, human beings will retreat to writing poetry and playing golf for the remainder of our days. But our nation has always defined itself by its capitalist roots, by entrepreneurialism, by the fight song of pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps. We have a deeply ingrained social and political history of favoring hard work and competition. It is unlikely in our current state of affairs that people who are out of work will be allowed to be unemployed without social stigma or with the economic support requisite to a decent standard of living. To avoid devolving into two classes — that of the employed and that of the unemployed — requires serious, targeted policy. Currently, our government seems more concerned with blaming an imaginary “other” for the loss of American jobs, rather than taking on the proactive, difficult task of addressing a problem that is much more proximate than it may seem.

None of the three previous revolutions of human labor — agricultural, industrial and digital — had to occur when they did, but all of these had to occur eventually. Once the technology existed, it was only a matter of time until it was implemented to increase the stability, length and — in theory — quality of human life. Now, as we begin the fourth great revolution of human labor, the robotic revolution, we must remain cognizant of the profound effects that technological innovation has on human life. During this time of change, we cannot rely on the familiar logic of free market economics. We must remain receptive to ideas which do not fit into the paradigm of labor-selling and wage-earning that has governed our understanding of economics ever since the Industrial Revolution. And we must begin this conversation now.