Robojobs and technological unemployment

They are among us and they are everywhere: robots! They take the form of check-in robots and ticket issuing robots at airports, train and bus stations, unmanned rocket launching military drones, consumer electronics dispensing robots at airports, unmanned check-out registers at IKEA, unattended manufacturing robots (see lights-out-manufacturing), ATMs or virtual robots who know what else you are likely to buy if your bought whatever you bought. The list is long and is getting longer.

The topic has regained visibility of late mainly in the US due to the new type of recovery witnessed there: on the one hand many important economic indicators are recovering back to pre-crisis levels, on the other hand job creation is not. Simply put companies are back to business but people aren’t.

There is talk of “technological unemployment” (technology makes people obsolete faster than the economy can create jobs to reemploy them or to retrain them) but also of jobs created by robots if you believe a report by the International Federation of Robotics. Some even foresee that automation may help bring manufacturing jobs back to where they were off-shored from (reshoring), however without significant job creation potential: technological unemployment.

This 60 minutes piece on technology, robots and jobs is a wonderful and entertaining blend of analysis, pop culture and labor market reality.

The invention and application of technology (a mainly but not exclusively human trait) enables us to, perhaps not always improve but, certainly alter the human condition by evolving the established ways we do things. As we ascertain our ability to perform certain tasks we review, revise and incrementally improve our ways and every so often we disrupt them drastically.

Every time a piece of technology unfolds its impact on reality, there is unavoidable restructuring, there are job losses and there are new jobs created. The more populated a certain job type is the more severe the impact of a disruptive technology on people’s lives. Understanding facts and myths, separating reality from phantasy and measuring this impact is fundamental to managing the changes. It is also a non trivial task. The lag between harnessing a natural phenomenon and the unfolding of its impact (and that of the technology based on it) on society seems to now shrink, allowing for less time to adapt and retrain people.
One thing we will not be able to automate is the process of technology creation. It will remain unpredictable and magical.

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