A research published six years ago by two Oxford academics, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, seemed to reinforce this ominous prediction about the global economy: Robots are going to take over our jobs. For, it warned that “about 47% of total US employment is at risk” due to computerisation. Carl, this year, expanded the ideas of the research in a book, which is portentously titled, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation .
Contrary to what it seems, Carl, a genial Swedish-German economic historian, is neither a doomsday prophesier of technology nor a closet Luddite. He appreciates the long-term benefits of automation, and acknowledges the help of algorithms in his research. He says that the 47% from the research paper is misunderstood by many. For, he explains, the paper merely examines the possibility of automation and doesn’t guarantee its outcome.
MetroPlus met the economist during his visit to Bengaluru last week to discuss the rise of the robots, future job markets, among other things.
Can automation — and the resultant loss of jobs — lead to social upheaval in a developing economy like India, which already has a large section of the population unemployed?
If you look at the industrial revolution in Britain, for example, industrialisation caused a social upheaval, right? People petitioned the Parliament to block the introduction of new technologies, and they clashed with the British Army on several occasions. But I think the problem in India is that the manufacturing sector has failed to modernise. So it’s become uncompetitive, which is even worse than having robots taking over jobs, because it means that instead of having some part of production being automated, you are essentially losing all of it. It’s also one of the reasons why automation was allowed to progress in the United States. The labour unions understood that if production isn’t automated, it may move abroad.
How should governments of the present and the future prepare to deal with disruptions due to automation?
I don’t think there’s a single policy that can solve the situation. One part is managing the transition from the rural countryside to big cities. One thing we know about these new industries is that they tend to be highly clustered in cities like Bengaluru. And I think that process is only going to continue, and there’s a sense that the countryside is being left behind. So, I think that you need to invest a lot in education and schooling, to make sure that people in the countryside have an opportunity to take on jobs that are emerging in the cities. You may have to incentivise people to actually move to the cities and help them financially in relocation. You need to invest a lot in public infrastructure and make sure that people can feasibly commute to work from the countryside. There also needs to be some form of reliable social security for people that are left behind.
An opinion poll by the Pew Research Center survey in 2017 found that 85% of US respondents favoured policies to restrict the rise of the robots. But do you think their rise is inevitable?
No, I don’t think so and history proves that. For millennia, growth was slow and stagnant because most people resisted technological change. There’s always been a lot of groups that don’t have an interest in new technologies being adopted — that can sometimes be workers and even the governments themselves. For example, one of the reasons you don’t have any railroads in Argentina is because the lorry union there is extremely strong, and they wouldn’t benefit from the railroads.
What are some of the major jobs that could become redundant?
There are very few industries that are unexposed to automation. But the main industries that we think are very likely to see significant job displacement are transportation, logistics, loaded duty autonomous vehicles, and warehouses. And production is going to continue to be more automated. And we’re also seeing it quite significantly in the retail sector.
So, what kind of jobs will today’s children be doing in the next 25 years or so?
We need to be humble about predicting the job market of the future. If you go back to the 1900s and ask someone, ‘What do you think your grandchildren are going to be?’, they wouldn’t have said software engineers or hot yoga instructors or travel agents. I think jobs involving creative skills and complex social interactions are going to be increasingly important. Also, it’s become a cliché now: data is going to be the new oil. So, if you want to work with new technologies, then knowing stats and machine learning will be helpful.
Can you also mention some of the new jobs that will be created due to automation?
We are already seeing some new jobs emerging, like big data architects, cloud service specialists, Android developers and more. There are jobs like Zumba instructors, beachbody coaches. Also, some jobs that have existed for a while — like sommeliers — are back in vogue now. Because as we grow richer, we demand more services.
- High risk (Above 90%): Telemarketers, data entry keyers, tellers, sports referees, tour guides and more
- Medium risk (45-55%): Dental assistants, medical appliance technicians, commercial pilots, massage therapists, fire inspectors and more
- Low risk (Below 10%): Mental health counsellors, physicians and surgeons, preschool teachers, anthropologists and archaeologists and more
- (Source: The Future of Employment , 2013)
What kind of political changes do you expect to happen around the globe?
In western economies, if you go back to the 60s and 70s, you see that high-income voters tend to vote for the right and low-income, working-class voters tend to vote for the left. In the beginning of the 80s, you see a shift, wherein the highly educated voters tend to opt for the political left, whereas high-income voters continue to support the right. And, that has left the working class politically disenfranchised. And, that is the anger that the populists are tapping into effectively. I think the political outcomes over the next few years, or even decades, will depend on whether the liberal parties can provide credible solutions for the challenges posed by automation.
Can you mention some of the key positives that can result out of this automation surge?
If you look at history, it has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of technological progress. If you look at Britain, for example, people don’t work in coal mines, where they don’t see daylight for weeks and explosions are part of everyday life. Most people now work in air-conditioned offices. We have an abundance of goods and services that were unimaginable 200 years ago, right? So, technology over the long run is an extremely positive thing, but it can create short-term disruptions. In an economy like India, you need to make sure that people have the feeling that they have some stake in long-term growth.
Do you think technology can help the environmental issues we are facing now?
Yes, technology can be a part of the solution. It’s true that new industries are less carbon-intensive than the smokestack industries of the past. Dematerialisation has certainly been a plus to the environment. We need to shift towards renewable energy. We may even need to think about geo-engineering.
You’d said in an interview that our debates on technology haven’t progressed much since the early 18th century. So, what are the questions we should be asking?
I think it’s more about asking if technological progress is welfare-improving or not? It makes society richer, but does it make everybody better off? If significant groups in the labour market lose out, they can potentially opt against it. Therefore, we need policies in place to manage the short-term effects. And, there’s always been this very polarised debate where it’s either ‘technology is wonderful; it’s the solution to everything’ or ‘it’s dystopia’. I think we need to see technology for what it is: which is, it’s a good thing, but not necessarily good for everyone in the short run.