Risks and Rewards of Automation

The risks and rewards of automation have been a major element in a year-long studio course I am taking this semester. While technology has the capability to mitigate global warming, lengthen and improve our lives, and enable the global south to participate in the ever-expanding world economy, there are several implications that keep me up at night. For instance, the rapid implementation of automated systems could drastically reduce labor force participation as well as displace millions of US workers, a major impact on our economy and our lives.

Take automated vehicles, for example. There are essentially five levels of automation for this technology, with one being a normal car and five being completely automated. Technology companies and automotive manufacturers are at level three currently, with some pundits predicting level five technology as early as 2030. While fully automated vehicles will radically change the driving experience and reduce accidents by up to 90%, academics speculate that up to four million US jobs will be eliminated as a direct result of this technology (Austin, et al., 2017, p. 14). When considering indirect effects, this number climbs to 15.5 million US jobs- or 10% of the US labor force (US Economic and Statistics Administration, 2018, p.1).

If those numbers seem staggering to you, keep in mind that they only pertain to autonomous vehicles. When we look at the rest of the economy, those numbers rise. Virtually every sector of our national economy is engaged in some sort of automation, the economic effects of which are still largely unknown. What we do know is that automation will at least impact a lot more than 15.5 million jobs. As I mentioned before automation is sometimes scary to think about, but let’s hold off on stocking up on canned goods and running to the woods.

Many techno-pessimists are quick to point to the immediate negative externalities associated with automation and spend little time focusing on the benefits. While automation will eliminate its fair share of jobs from the domestic economy, it will create a myriad of new jobs, many of which could be relatively high paying. Some claim that up to 60% of jobs in the near future have yet to be realized, and this is true for automated systems. It is possible that the support, maintenance, and development of automated systems could create as many jobs as it eliminates (Groshen, et al., 2017, p. 26).

It is important to note, however, that these replacement jobs will not be direct replacements for the production workers, truckers, and service industry employees that will first feel the bite of automation. While these new support jobs will almost certainly pay higher wages than most of those that are immediately eliminated, they will more than likely require some sort of postsecondary STEM education. Therefore, it is now more important than ever to encourage STEM education amongst high school students and young adults, so that they can remain competitive our rapidly changing job market.

Data presented in this blog posts suggests that we are wading into quite a quandary, one that will only get worse as automated systems are implemented more rapidly. So, how do we develop our current workforce for jobs that have yet to be realized? My answer is, simply, “I don’t know.” This issue is not in the orbit of my pay grade and I am not even remotely qualified to speculate on solutions. What I can do is get the word out and leave the cleanup to brighter minds.

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