Opinion: Can humans compete with technology in the workplace?

Lucas Misera

Since the Industrial Revolution, the fear of machinery and technology destroying jobs has gripped society.

At the turn of the 20th century, automobiles brought forth a new era of transportation, simultaneously rendering blacksmiths and wainwrights obsolete. The combine harvester, also an invention of the early 20th century, obliterated demand for agricultural human capital in the U.S.

The examples are endless, but these two exhibit a larger point: An underlying dread of technological advancement has persisted throughout centuries, and the sense of panic remains.

Robotics and artificial intelligence threaten to render human labor an artifact of some inefficient past — a semblance of an era of high production costs.

Fast-food kiosks, self-checkout lanes and futuristic assembly lines serve as direct competitors to human labor, a cheaper alternative for cost-cutting firms.

Should American workers be worried?

When automobiles destroyed business for blacksmiths, the new industry also opened a door for employment on Model-T assembly lines, repair shops and boosted productivity abroad through more effective transportation.

Technology pushed humans out of agriculture, which was once the backbone of the American economy.

As of 2012, slightly over 2.1 million Americans considered their primary career field to be farming. Although the 20th century saw these jobs eliminated, the net benefit to society came through less expensive food for consumers and the progression of an economy based on skilled rather than agricultural labor.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if there is a threshold at which technology no longer complements human production.

When does job turnover lag too far behind technology’s rate of advancement, such that the pace with which we automize our workforce leaves low- and high-skill workers with minimal job security? No economist has a definitive answer.

Many argue that future advancements will follow the historical trend: brief disruption, lower production costs, eventual job reallocation and an overall benefit to society.

But this argument seems oversimplified. Comparing manufacturing technology from the 19th and 20th centuries that worked primarily in a two-dimensional plane — serving no purpose without being paired with human labor — to modern-day artificial intelligence is lazy.

Mid- to late- 2000s technology is a threat to the middle class. While the common — though misled — school of thought is that automation will devour the labor market from the bottom of the chain in regards to skill, this isn’t the case.

The jobs in peril today are easily routinized, tasks that may require a fair amount of skill but can be replicated via computerization. They lack a distinctive human element.

Low-skill workers typically practice customer service and minute physical tasks not easily automatable. High-end employees, on the other hand, require a level of critical thinking and decision-making not easily programmable into non-human capital.

The middle-skill workers (think office clerks, secretaries, accountants and some construction workers) are unlikely to find higher wages once displaced by technology. Unless they return to school or attain more education, it’s likely that they’d be forced into the low-skill labor market.

Wages for the lower classes are far less likely to improve over time. Even if these jobs are impossible to replace, the influx of labor supply at the lower end of the income spectrum leaves wages stagnant for unskilled laborers.

The result? Exacerbated income inequality.

My fears of technology are widely dispersed and cannot be pinpointed to one element of the economy. If technology becomes a destructive force within the labor force, the effects would be widespread and have societal, as well as economic ramifications; complicated questions will shape our future.

Should everyone have a guaranteed income to protect from automation? Do individuals necessarily need to hold a job in order to be a productive member of society? Should the beneficiaries of automation — executives and shareholders — be held accountable for the elimination of jobs?

Sadly, neither economists nor I have a crystal ball to predict the rapid progression of technology. We can only prepare for what the not-so-distant horizon holds.

Or maybe a supercomputer might be able to forecast our fate. After all, you might be surprised where we’re at with artificial intelligence.

Lucas Misera is the opinion editor, contact him at [email protected].