Robots and new forms of employment

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The myth of Prometheus -- the Greek Titan who steals fire from the gods as a gift for humanity -- symbolizes our recurrent desire to overcome the limits of nature. This longing is depicted in various metaphors across different cultures: luminous magic lamps that enable fantastic wishes, silk carpets that fly across continents, or secret potions that grant immortality. All of them represent the shift from a vision which encouraged humble reverence before the deities of agriculture to one which dreamt of transcendence. The new faith would lead to the eventual enchantments of the laboratory, the rocket, and the robot. Technology now sits where the Olympian divinities were once enthroned.

The Promethean dream is the one that many of our prominent entrepreneurs have embraced. Our dominant modern creed is the belief that technological innovation -- despite its military implications, despite its pressure on the climate, despite its replacement of humans -- is still the means that will enable us to ultimately overcome our rooted lives. This dream, like all utopias, has a nightmarish potential.

General Motors (GM) recently announced that it would close internal combustion auto assembly plants in North America in order to focus those resources -- $8 billion -- on producing electric and self-driving cars. In Oshawa, Ontario the closing of the GM plant will unemploy 2,500 unionized workers. GM Canada noted that the shift could have benefits for Canada since the company had hired hundreds of software engineers focused on self-driving technologies over the past year. The story of General Motors is one of humanity's worrisome future scenarios: employment for a small number of highly skilled workers alongside the creation of a large "useless class" that is excluded from economic participation.

The situation of the workers who have lost their jobs due to General Motors' recent decision highlights the key economic question of our time. It was the same one that was asked during the Industrial Revolution: will technological innovation produce mass unemployment, or will it generate more jobs than it replaces? The latter outcome prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the former may come to pass in the 21st. The Industrial Revolution replaced various forms of manual labour, but the current infotech and biotech revolutions are replacing cognitive labour, potentially opening the door to a much less positive response.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that both outcomes are possible. He notes how computer technology could replace many drivers, doctors, and musicians. At the same time, he points out that automation could also produce new data-oriented forms of employment. One of Harari's most interesting examples of upcoming job creation concerns U.S. Reaper drones. Drones replace pilots, but each requires 30 people on the ground manning its flight and another 80 deciphering the information that it compiles. In 2015 the U.S. Air Force had a shortage of trained analysts to oversee these drones. Contemporary technological change issues large volumes of information that need to be assessed.

We can add to Harari's research by noting that analytical and interpretive capacity will become a significant commodifiable skill. The liberal arts degree could become as important as the computer programming degree is today. We could see the return of the humanities because they are most effective at producing the creative and critical thinking skills that the information economy requires.

Harari briefly indicates that we could generate an immense number of jobs if we developed employment in the emotional care industries. For example, the labour that has long been performed without pay, and primarily by women, such as caring for the young, the elderly, and the sick are a vast potential source of employment. As women have entered the workforce, there has emerged an unmet need for workers to perform the emotional labour that they once provided. Building on Harari we could include the creation of more employment in terms of physical and mental health -- such as mindfulness, yoga, and fitness training -- all of which would more than compensate for the jobs lost through automation.

Many progressive governments will realize the vote potential that would come from the jobs yielded by national daycare programs, care for senior citizens, and physical and mental fitness coaching. As well, many colleges and universities -- exemplified by George Brown College's upcoming conference on "Re-Imagining Education in an Automating World" -- will begin to investigate the new avenues that are emerging in our age of robots. The contemporary Promethean revolution could provoke employment as impressively as the Industrial one, though not because it will create as many jobs as it replaces but because it will accelerate the commercialization of emotional care, physical fitness, mental resilience, and the liberal arts.

Thomas Ponniah, PhD, is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, and the co-editor of Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books 2003), and co-editor of The Revolution in Venezuela (Harvard University Press 2011). 

Photo: Mixabest/Wikimedia Commons

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