Stanley Ochuko Omadogho
Are advanced technologies – “artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, virtual reality, mass 3D printing, biotechnology, chatbots, deep learning, drones, augmented reality and smart objects” – creating or killing jobs?
Robots can “man” entire factories once managed with human labour. Self-driving cabs, drone package delivery, and other automated systems – all are feared will make significant cuts into the human workforce.
An augury for job prospects? Is advanced technology creating or destroying jobs? A suitable answer that best approximates present and future realities will require four rationalisations:
1. Machines will never become self-aware and write their own programs and algorithms. Humans will always be at the helm, determining and setting their parameters. Will this make up for jobs lost to automated systems?
2. Every advanced civilization is powered by technology. The more diverse and cutting-edge these technologies have become, the busier the populace have been, historically. Do we have the creativity to keep busy despite the odds created by these machines?
3. When technology does it better, faster and more accurately, everyone welcomes it, like computers. But when machines exist mainly to lower operating expenditure by replacing humans, could we expect a backlash at some point?
4. Technologies that are intrinsic job killers, at the same time, are inherent job creators. But do they kill and create jobs simultaneously in a one-to-one ratio, especially in the same geographical location, and amongst the same affected population, who are the focus of this article?
Pondering on point four above, if robots take over an entire factory in Europe and obliterate thousands of jobs, the design, manufacture and maintenance of these robots will create just hundreds, but who knows, maybe thousands of jobs in China or the US, countries more advanced in artificial intelligence and robotics. At best, maintenance hubs or centers will only pop up in Europe.
To breathe life into a new job, technology must sometimes snuff the life out of an old one. So are new technologies bound by the legendary myth of Hollywood folklore: if one (job) falls, two will rise to take its place?
Maybe, or maybe not. Since the start of the industrial revolution, new technologies have inevitably created more jobs than they have destroyed, especially jobs requiring higher skill levels. Consider the printing press, motor vehicles, the internet, digital satellite TV, telecoms, mobile phones, etc.
The past is not always a reliable pointer to the future nonetheless, especially as humanity wades into the unknown, as if creating the fictional “Skynet” that becomes self-aware, launching judgement day for job seekers. I mean, the robot revolution now means autonomous machines will one day spray, weed and harvest farms.
Technologies that increase mobility, communication, data synthesis and knowledge sharing, are obvious job breeders. However, technologies that help humans perform a given task faster and better, like computers, cars, and mobile phones, should not be mistaken for technologies that actually replace humans in decision-making, like robots and AI.
Somehow, the job growth created by printing presses, or the cascade of tech-driven jobs that splashed onto the job arena with what followed the printing press, namely, online publishing platforms now used by news outlets and book sellers, and the jobs created by electronic devices, do not in themselves provide satisfactory pointers to the future. Or do they?
Granted, Uber is powered by a new technology. The result? More unemployed individuals from deprived suburbs have entered the job market, while Airbnb have transformed private homes into businesses. Here we see new technologies creating more jobs, in a somewhat decentralised fashion.
As new technologies render some jobs obsolete, remember this: the human imagination is limitless, and so is our ability to create a beehive of activities, powered by the very products of our ingenuity – technology. Thinking otherwise would be underestimating the greatness inherent within us.
That is why warnings about the impact of advanced technology on job prospects is not an apocalyptic message meant to shock, but a clarion call to a new awakening, that new skills will need to be acquired by the X generation, or the study of certain disciplines will need to be shelved by the Y generation, or better still, certain interests will have to be cultivated at an early age by the Z generation. Yes, like it or not, who adapts with ease and who gets left behind is more or less a generational question.
So here is a possible scenario for the future, which is already here by the way, but will be at full swing when the Z generation assumes the mantle of leadership. Folks would be smarter, more innovative, and more self-reliant, leveraging on new technologies to create endless possibilities in new fields of endeavour. The result? Jobs.
Advanced technology would create a platform where anyone can make, create and innovate right from their garages. The corporate world would thus see more entrepreneurs. Individuals could manage small farms commercially and profitably with the help of robots. With an imposing online footprint, the Z generation would power the internet-of-things, relegating, but not phasing out, the traditional brick-and-mortar enterprises, managing various forms of online businesses that would rely less and less on humans.
In the end, technology would help make the world smarter and perhaps busier. Those unable to adapt will pay the price, creating a spike in the unemployment rate for a certain demographic or age group. Every continent, including Africa, will have to contend with this reality. When the time comes, all must be prepared for a full-fledged smart and digital economy.
However, if we have overestimated our imagination, or the strength of our imagination has created our greatest weakness, if the predicted job boom fails to pan out, and the tech push comes to a job-killing shove that brings society against a brick wall, humanity will fight back for its survival, for its very existence.
Policies and laws will mandate businesses to adhere to a quota system for utilizing robots and other automated systems. Companies could be prohibited from automating processes, from engaging in what will be tagged unfair business practices, defined by some ethical mumbo jumbo.
The protests in France against fuel tax shows humanity can and will fight back to remain in its comfort zone. And remember the protests against Uber in 2015 by French cab drivers?
Regular drivers have harassed and attacked Google’s Waymo self-driving cars. When the rising market cap of cryptocurrencies revealed a real threat to fiat currencies, governments fought back with choking regulations.
The African continent will fight back the hardest. As America and Europe contend with its robots and automated systems, Africa will take steps to preserve traditional, old-school jobs for its teeming population.
Technology will definitely put out of fashion certain jobs. Whether it creates enough high-tech jobs to keep everyone happy and satisfied will depend on how well individuals and institutions have leveraged technology. In the end, not just productivity or efficiency, but cost, convenience and over all customer satisfaction will determine which technological advancement becomes mainstream, and which gets branded and listed for resistance.
Omadogho writes from Port Harcourt