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The Robots Are Coming!: The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation

Dylan Schleicher

April 30, 2019

Andrés Oppenheimer's new book is "a thought-provoking search to understand what the future holds for today’s jobs in the foreseeable age of automation."

The prospect of human beings being replaced by robots is no longer one of academic or science fiction speculation. It is, as of yesterday, literally front-page news in our local newspaper here in Milwaukee. 

Less than two years after Wisconsin's former governor Scott Walker struck a deal with Foxconn Technology Group that would leave state and local governments on the hook for up to $4 billion in subsidies in exchange for creating up to 13,000 Wisconsin jobs, those jobs are looking less and less likely to materialize. Less than two years after President Donald Trump proclaimed the coming manufacturing plant the "eighth wonder of the world," and "In Racine County, neatly maintained homes and dream houses [were] designated ‘blighted’ to make way for Foxconn" along with land that was in soybean, corn, and cabbage crops the year before, and the worry isn't just about what kind of factory will be built, but if Foxconn—a company that not only builds industrial robots for itself, but has an entire subsidiary that supplies them to other business wanting to cut labor costs—will employ any significant amount of human beings there.

Then, just this morning, on my way to work, a story filed by Camila Domonoske of NPR came on the radio about how, "Even In The Robot Age, Manufacturers Need The Human Touch." It's no longer a distant topic.

All of that speaks to why Andrés Oppenheimer's new book, The Robots Are Coming!: The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation, couldn't be more topical for us here in Wisconsin, and indeed for working people everywhere. It is a complicated topic, with both great promise and peril. So I'm excited that the team at Vintage Books has allowed us to share the book's Prologue, below, with our readers. 

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Ever since a study by the University of Oxford predicted that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence over the next fifteen to twenty years, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the future of work. How many people will become unemployed because of the increasing automation of jobs? This is not a new phenomenon, but never before has it developed at such a fast pace. Technology has been killing jobs since the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. But up to now, humans have always managed to create more jobs than those that were wiped out by technology. The question now is, can we continue creating more jobs than we are eliminating?

The media bring us one example after another of how technological disruption often creates new companies, though at the cost of decimating others that employed many more people. The Eastman Kodak Company, an icon of the photographic industry that employed 140,000 people, was pushed into bankruptcy in 2012 by Instagram, a start-up with just 13 employees that knew how to beat Kodak to the punch when it came to digital photography. Blockbuster, the giant movie rental chain that employed 60,000 people around the world, went bankrupt shortly before that because it could not compete with Netflix, another start-up with 30 employees that started shipping movies directly to people’s homes. During its golden age, General Motors had a staff of some 618,000 workers, whereas now their number is down to 202,000. What’s more, the car company is now being threatened by Tesla and Google, which are ahead in the development of self-driven cars and employ 30,000 and 55,000 people, respectively. Will GM’s employees suffer the same fate as those at Kodak and Blockbuster?

Growing numbers of jobs are disappearing. We see this every day in our lives. In the very recent past, we’ve witnessed the gradual extinction of elevator attendants, telephone operators, factory workers, and garbage collectors who swept the streets with brooms in their hands, all of whom are being replaced by machines. In the United States, parking lot attendants and their collection booths are vanishing fast, as are airline tellers and their check-in desks at airports. At many restaurants in Japan, conveyor belts have taken the place of servers, and a number of sushi restaurants have replaced their chefs with robots. Today it’s not just people performing manual labor who are seeing their jobs threatened, but also white-collar workers such as journalists, travel agents, real estate salesmen, bankers, insurance agents, accountants, lawyers, and doctors. Virtually no profession is safe: all are feeling the impact—at least somewhat—from the automation of work.

My own profession, journalism, is among the most threatened. The Washington Post is already publishing election stories written by robots, and almost all major American newspapers publish sports scores and stock market figures generated by smart machines. Journalists will have to ride the wave of this new reality and reinvent ourselves, or we will soon find ourselves out of the game. And the same thing will happen in almost every other profession.

Even those who are themselves responsible for the technological revolution—people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—are now admitting for the first time that unemployment caused by technological advances—technological unemployment—could become the biggest global challenge of the twenty-first century. As Zuckerberg said during his 2017 commencement-day speech at Harvard University, “today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs,” and “our generation will have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like autonomous cars and trucks.” And long before many people were talking about this issue, in 2014, Gates was already admitting that “technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set . . . 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower.”

How are the big corporations responding to all of this? The vast majority of them are claiming that far from killing jobs, they are increasing productivity and hiring new people by automating their operations. Should we believe them, or are they just feeding us fairy tales and half-truths? And if what they’re saying is in fact true, which are the jobs that will disappear and which others are going to replace them? Where will the effects of automation and artificial intelligence be felt the most, in the industrialized world or in the emerging countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America? Most important, what should each of us be doing to prepare ourselves for this tsunami of labor automation that is sweeping across the globe?

To answer these questions, I followed the same methodology I used in my 2014 book Innovate or Die!: I traveled to major world innovation centers, interviewed some of the best-known creativity and business gurus, and then drew my own conclusions. This time, I started my journey at the University of Oxford in England, where I interviewed the two researchers who shocked the world in 2013 with their study predicting that 47 percent of current jobs will disappear in the near future. From there, I traveled to Silicon Valley, New York, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and several countries in both Europe and Latin America to study the future of some of the key industries of the twenty-first century.

What I learned in this journalistic voyage at once surprised and scared me. Fortunately, while history is rife with examples of technologies that have annihilated entire industries, these same technologies have created brand-new industries that produced more jobs than they erased. But there is no guarantee that this same trend will hold true going forward as automation and artificial intelligence take growing numbers of jobs and the rate of technological acceleration increases. I have little doubt that technological unemployment—and the question of what we will do with our lives in a world where robots will do much of the work—will be one of the world’s most pressing issues in coming decades. Don’t be fooled by the relatively low 2018 unemployment rates in the United States: it’s an issue that—whether it’s because of the disappearance of jobs or the gradual fall of wages—will affect each and every nation on earth.

In many ways, it’s already upon us. Growing disaffection among workers in traditional twentieth-century industries has led to the emergence of nationalist, protectionist, and anti-globalization movements in the United States and a number of European nations. Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election in part by exploiting the anxieties of workers in technologically threatened industries and blaming undocumented immigrants for taking American jobs or driving American wages down. But it wasn’t immigration that was killing jobs and reducing wages: it was the automation of labor. In fact, the number of undocumented immigrants had declined significantly since the 2008 financial crisis. And the impact of growing automation and artificial intelligence will become only more visible as time goes on. If we do not find a solution to the coming disruption of key industries, the world will become an even more tumultuous place. My hope is that this book will help create a greater awareness of the challenges that new waves of technological unemployment will bring about and help us better prepare ourselves to face this new reality, both as individuals and as nations.

 

Excerpted from The Robots Are Coming!: The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation.
Published by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Copyright © 2018 by Andrés Oppenheimer.
English translation copyright © 2019 by Ezra E. Fitz
All rights reserved.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrés Oppenheimer is editor and syndicated foreign affairs columnist with The Miami Herald, anchor of Oppenheimer Presenta on CNN En Español, and author of seven books. Oppenheimer is the co-winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize as a member of The Miami Herald team that uncovered the Iran-Contra scandal. He won the Inter-American Press Association Award twice (1989 and 1994) and the 1997 award of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He is also the winner of the 1993 Ortega y Gasset Award of Spain’s daily El País and the 1998 Maria Moors Cabot Prize of Columbia University.

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