What If… Machines take the majority of jobs?

  • March 29, 2016

In this, the first post to the “What If…?” blog, I want to raise an issue that has profound ethical implications for business, governments, and society. We know that machines, most recently in the form of computers and robots, are making fantastical strides in doing the work that humans have historically done. The decline in US agricultural employment, from three quarters of the total workforce to less than two percent today, is an early example of the potential mechanization has to displace workers. Technology’s first encroachment into human labor came in the form of physical labor, and is now making inroads into the administrative and cognitive functions. Artificial intelligence holds the promise of critical thinking and learning. What if the process of replacing human labor continues across the broad range of employment opportunities available to us?

Lest one think that this post is merely a Luddite rant about the evils of technology, let me assure you that I am typing this on a laptop, consulting the internet regularly, and welcome all sorts of labor saving devices. We need only to pay attention to the news to realize the extent of the technological advances being made daily. Some of my recent favorites: “Where Computers Defeat Humans, and Where They Can’t“, “Humans Need Not Apply“, and “Let’s All Pull Together“. What we once believed to be science fiction is becoming reality every day.

There is certainly a debate about if the advent of advanced technologies spells the end of work for many or most humans, or opens the door for more fulfilling, creative employment. I know of no conclusive arguments on either side. I suggest here, though, that the answer to whether our march is to a technological dystopia or utopian world lies, not with the technology itself, but with our social approach to the question.

Productive employment has always been the central organizing element of (at least Western) societies. People have worked to earn incomes that they use to acquire what they need to live. If technological advances make human labor largely unneeded, that organizing element will no longer be useful. Unless societies re-think the means of distributing purchasing power, our current system of doing so — remuneration for productive labor — will be inadequate.

As a smaller scale example, consider the dilemma technology presents to an employee-owned firm (the Hy-Vee grocery chain and New Belgium Brewing Company are two examples). McDonald’s use of kiosks for customers to order food has the potential to deprive many young workers their initial steps into the working world. How might one’s thought process about replacing human labor with machines change when that human labor is part owner of the firm? How would the thinking alter if workers are seen as consumers for the firm’s products? Or if young workers do not have the chance to learn about working in a business setting?

Another example comes from discussions I regularly have with college students about the meaning of work — the idea that they will be happier in their work lives if they find value and fulfillment (ie., meaning) in the work they do. We also acknowledge that to even have that conversation is an incredible luxury. The majority of people in the world, those who live in poverty or on its edge, work to survive, not to find meaning. Will societies allow technology to help more or fewer people find meaning in their daily activities?

In many ways, the question of technology’s effects on employment is a subset of the basic philosophical question, “How should I live my life?” We all have basic needs that must be met in order to live. What role and to what extent should meeting those basic needs have in our lives? Do we need to work to have meaning and fulfillment; should technology be utilized to allow more people to find meaning in what they do; should it be employed to further reduce labor and provide cost savings to businesses; does business have a duty to provide employment; if so, to whom and to how many? Depending on our answers to those questions, how should we structure society to meet those goals?

I invite your responses to these questions and more that I have not considered.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.

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