We continue to see headlines about robots taking over human jobs. This is not a new fear, but the new possibilities of generative AI have brought the concern back to the forefront recently.
Is this a problem?
Recent studies have suggested that clerical jobs will be taken on by Chat GPT and its descendants quite soon. In most other jobs, many tasks — maybe up to one third — can be automated but there will still be work for humans to do. Automation will increase productivity, but may not reduce the actual number of workers if it leads to overall growth. And of course robotics and AI both will spawn entirely new jobs that we haven’t yet thought of.
But there will doubtless be disruption. Some of the current jobs will no longer exist. Some will be changed so much that people will need retraining and new skills in order to keep doing those jobs. Some of the new jobs will require completely different skills from the old jobs.
A truck driver whose job shifts to autonomous vehicles won’t necessarily be able to step neatly into a job overseeing those new vehicles. A file clerk may not be ready and willing to oversee a database. Some people will be out of work and others will earn less or enjoy their jobs less.
Is it a philosophical problem?
Union organizers are being quoted on the subject of robots and AI taking over jobs. Often they suggest that union organization will prevent the loss of jobs to automation.
Imagine a farmer using a horse to plough a field. Along comes a tractor. The farmer checks the horse’s contract and seres that he can’t replace the horse with the tractor because of the terms of the contract. So he goes ahead and sticks to ploughing with his horse.
Then imagine a contract requiring a hospital to keep all their human nurses when one third of their tasks are automated, rather than letting one third of the nurses go. The hospital might like the idea of having enough growth to keep all the current nurses, but a requirement to keep all those extra idle hands on the payroll till that happens could be unpopular.
And maybe more than unpopular. Can employers be required to keep workers on when they are surplus to requirements? Legally, probably not. Morally — well, that’s a philosophical question.
More often, contracts require that workers get a heads up when automation is planned, or an opportunity to apply for new jobs within the company.
The Department of Labor offers Rapid Response services to help with layoffs. Retraining and reskilling can help workers whose jobs will become obsolete.
But as Thomas Friedman pointed out, flexibility and a willingness to be adaptable have become essential job requirements in the modern world. Some personal responsibility is required.