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In 1878, Frederick Winslow Taylor stepped onto the shopfloor at Midvale Steel Works armed with a stopwatch, a pencil and a pad. His goal? To usher in the age of efficiency in manufacturing and revolutionize labor. This father of modern automation would soon fuel a revolution in industry that would boost workers' productivity, but also lay the foundation for artificial intelligence and robotics.
Robots have long been characterized as the enemy of the laboring man. Jose Canseco's recent tweetstorm is evidence of that distress, described by Stephen Hawking in his article last year, "This is the most dangerous time for our planet":
The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
It's easy to understand the worry. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the transportation sector accounts for 4.6 million jobs in the United States, many of them truckers and taxi drivers who see driverless cars in the near future. 15.3 million retail jobs, half of which account for sales and cashier jobs, see the internet and cashier automation as a threat. Same for the leisure and hospitality industry (think restaurants and service) that makes up 14.7 million jobs in our country.
With all of these jobs potentially under attack, why have we only recently heard this outcry? Because there's much more to the story.
Technology has long been an agile and fluid force, creating and disrupting labor sectors throughout history as new technologies arrive to increase production and efficiency. Short term speed bumps are an inevitable but positive force in the markets bent on increasing productivity and wealth. For example, at the end of the 19th century, blacksmiths or "farriers," who worked predominantly on horseshoes, had to forge new careers as automotive technologies became cheaper and started sweeping the transportation sector. The sliding demand for horseshoes did not mean the blacksmiths no longer had work, but had to redirect their talents to creating other products: presumably piping, car parts, or other industry tools.
Taylor, himself, who had brought machines to the manufacturing floor to standardized practices, laid the foundation for Ford's profitable assembly line. This made automobiles cost-effective for every American to own.
Because of automation, the United States now makes approximately 85 percent more goods than we did in 1987, with two-thirds the number of workers. That makes the product of the American worker that much stronger and cost-effective on a world stage. Manufacturing actually stands to gain. According to economists at Ball State University, “almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth.”
According to John Murphy, this is a good thing for output and job creation:
Technological change, robotics, automation, and widespread use of information technologies have enabled firms to boost output even as some have cut payrolls. Research suggests that technological advances are making sophisticated capital goods substitutes for low-skilled workers. In this context, what do America’s manufacturers — who are among the most productive in the world — most need if they are to create more jobs? They need a workforce with the appropriate skills and education. They need a policy environment that isn’t biased against job creation (for instance, by taxing enterprises based on head count or payroll).
At the end of the day, strong productivity and output keeps the United States competitive internationally. By fearing automation and new technologies, we unnecessarily demand of ourselves harder work with a lower standard of creativity and innovation — the very entrepreneurial aspects we should be encouraging.
While the jury is still out on how automation affects other parts of ou rlives, robots are definitely not stealing our jobs. At least not yet. New technologies are making us smarter, more productive, and better able to take on the challenges of international trade in the 21st century.