Oct 24, 2018 - Technology

Relax about the robots ... or maybe not

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The last year has seen vigorous pushback against forecasts of a robot nightmare — that machines, over the coming decades, will vaporize whole swaths of employment, leaving tens of millions of people jobless.

But if the dystopian forecasts were alarmist, the backlash against them is veering too sharply in the other direction.

The backdrop: In 2015, futurist Martin Ford captured the nightmare vision in "Rise of the Robots," a book that attracted wide attention with a picture of massive job losses rendered by the speed and breadth of the new age of automation.

Over the last year or so, other futurists have dissented.

  • Instead of this dystopia, a flurry of reports say the U.S. and global economy will produce more than a sufficient number of jobs to employ everyone displaced by robots — just as has happened in every technological cycle over the last 2 centuries.
  • Last December, the McKinsey Global Institute quoted a 1966 report in the Johnson administration: "Technology destroys jobs, but not work.”
  • And in a report this month, the Economist said worries about the new gig economy — about job instability, low pay and a lack of benefits — "are mostly overblown."

All in all, society is being whipsawed into agitated anxiety, followed by lulling calm.

What they're saying: I checked with a few people in the future field as to what is going on with the forecasts. The main answer — we are in a real fix, but it is barely yet visible. And, though jobs may be created for everyone once automation digs deep into businesses across the economy, no one knows how long it will take to create them, nor what they will pay.

Meanwhile, the first signs are already with us:

  • "When you look around, you don't see a robot apocalypse," says Andrew McAfee, co-author of "Machine, Platform, Crowd." "We are not living in a time of massive technological unemployment. But I can't see a middle class as strong, healthy, confident and prosperous as it was 40 years ago."
  • "I think that nobody is noticing, in the reading and writing public, the fact that automation is hitting jobs right now — because it isn't yet hitting their jobs," says Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture capital firm.

History says that technological change — though it can seem sudden — actually moves slowly. The hit from automation will be another 10–20 years, says Azeem Azhar, a senior adviser on artificial intelligence at Accenture. "Look at how long it took the internet (established 1969) to evolve a company that could destroy mattress vendors," he tells Axios. "And yet when it hit those vendors, it smashed them only one year after a major merger."

Azhar adds: "It has taken cloud computing 12 years to go from Amazon's first offering to something which the bulk of industry will rely on — and that is a much easier shift with more easily understood benefits than these societal ones we expect to see." 

The bottom line: I receive almost weekly pitches from analysts and futurists dismissing the dire forecasts. So why the wave of optimistic projections?

Bahat says, "I think it is all about staying credible. Warn too far out and soon people will start crying foul when they don't see it. Until it hits the reading and writing public, then staying credible is all about how 'close' to the current conventional wisdom you are."

Azhar says, "We're all forecasters now, and it is in the interests of the pundits, tech vendors and the founders to promote the future. A faster future = more $$$." 

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