Automation, destroying employment or replacing it?
We’ve been reading for a few years about an automation mantra that repeats that robots are going to kill our jobs. And although it is an idea that has been repeated every time there have been major innovations since the first industrial revolution, this certain alarmism is not surprising.
Today, most of the research in this regard has focused on the progressive introduction of robots in industrial manufacturing and the algorithms that help automate routine tasks to become increasingly important. It is undeniable that technological changes are assuming the replacement of jobs, thus directly affecting employment. But it is no less true that taking as a reference the history of the Industry of the last century, work depends on the balance between the new technologies that have emerged, and that have replaced human employment, and the technologies for the reinstatement of work, which generate new technologies. Tasks in which humans have a comparative advantage.
Probably the most classic example of a technology that replaces labor is that of robots in car factories. Assembly lines in the automotive industry have gone from having workers throughout their entire journey to having different robotic elements that have replaced the vast majority of operators. Technology has largely replaced direct human effort when building a car.
The near future
If advances in automation and Artificial Intelligence will end in the near future by eliminating most of the presence of workers, it is not possible to fully predict yet. In fact, it is only necessary to review what a modern industrial production plant looks like to verify that this is not the case.
The development of technologies that facilitate new tasks for which workers are better prepared could well lead to a better future for workers, as optimistic as it may sound. An example that invites us to be optimistic in this regard is the one that took place from the 90s of last century. Thus, the massive entry of computers into company offices led to a significant reduction in the number of secretaries and typists but, in turn, led to the emergence of computer technicians, software program developers and IT consultants.
It should be added that the economy is not only experiencing technological development in terms of automation and Artificial Intelligence, but in sectors linked in many cases to industry such as the services sector, the new ways developed in it open an unfathomable universe of employment opportunities in the near future.
Still, as automation becomes universal, even the most advanced techniques and robots will remain prone to flaws. Software updates and parts and equipment that will need to be manufactured and assembled will always be required. Therefore, sooner or later, a large number of robotics specialists, who today do not constitute even one percent of the workforce, will have to enter the labor market. Some industries will benefit from this process earlier than others. Among them, in principle, the automotive, transportation, logistics, electronics, robotics and renewable industries. New manufacturers, engineers, maintenance experts and professionals, equipped with novel skills, will join the workforce in great numbers, finding work in new companies. Studies have revealed that for every robot put into use, an average of three new jobs will be created.
In any case, the new technologies have and will have significant implications on the state of work in the industry. That is why it is important to incorporate, in parallel to these, other measures that promote the development of the most appropriate forms of technology to generate more jobs and good returns. As happens every time there is a change of scenery of dimensions like the one that is coming, it is public policies that should promote the best of changes of scenery. And among them, there is a fairly general consensus that the following are some of the most important aspects to take into account to be carried out.
Public plans that involve investments in job training opportunities. In this way, workers could be prepared to carry out work derived from the needs of increasing automation and the introduction of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence.
Tax reformulation in order to reduce subsidies directed to capital in relation to work. In this way, existing incentives to efficiently substitute capital for labor would be reduced.
Focus subsidies on technologies that aim to develop new tasks that allow workers to be relocated and, in this way, continue in the companies maintaining an adequate level of income.
A clear commitment to facilitating smoother transitions in the workforce through the investment of greater resources in social and unemployment insurance, in order to cover the situations that those workers who are relocated to positions that imply lower income and those who suffer a job loss.
In any case, it is still too early to make an accurate prediction about the long-term implication of technological advances for employment in the Industry. Looking at the history, it cannot be denied that technology replaces jobs, but it also becomes an opportunity for the creation of new jobs. And many of them, unpredictably while the technological transformation is taking place.
Therefore, it makes no sense to cling to the most ominous forecasts, and more so knowing that the capacities to adapt to changes in human beings are not usually taken into account in disruptive moments like the current one. Thinking that the newest technologies will no longer require human capital in production companies does not seem like a statement on which it is very safe to bet.