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Man and machine: A complicated love story

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 11:32 a.m. MDT

In this Jan. 15, 2013 file photo, Rosser Pryor, Co-owner and President of Factory Automation Systems, sits next to a new high-performance industrial robot at the company's Atlanta facility. Pryor, who cut 40 of 100 workers since the recession, says while the company is making more money now and could hire ten people, it is holding back in favor of investing in automation and software.  (David Goldman, Associated Press) In this Jan. 15, 2013 file photo, Rosser Pryor, Co-owner and President of Factory Automation Systems, sits next to a new high-performance industrial robot at the company's Atlanta facility. Pryor, who cut 40 of 100 workers since the recession, says while the company is making more money now and could hire ten people, it is holding back in favor of investing in automation and software. (David Goldman, Associated Press)

If a “jobocalypse” is indeed coming, it’s not the fault of robots, according to Al Jazeera America’s Lynn Stuart Parramore.

“If job decreases were really caused by waves of automation, the unemployment rate should have ticked up during the 1990s, when you probably started the decade with a typewriter and finished it with a laptop,” Parramore writes in her online article “Don’t buy the hype of a robot-driven ‘jobocalypse.’"

“But that is not what happened. The U.S. had a buoyant economy and enjoyed robust demand, which led to a low unemployment rate for most of the decade.”

Parramore’s criticisms of the gloom-and-doom view of advancing technology comes on the heels of a recent report by Politico Magazine that says the embrace of robot technology has been a stabilizer for Pittsburgh’s economy, even going so far as to say the city avoided Detroit’s ultimately disastrous path because of it.

“All told, Pittsburgh’s tech and education sectors now account for some 80 percent of the high-wage jobs in the city, and robots are just the most visible piece of this miraculous turnaround of a city on the brink,” Politico Magazine’s Glenn Thrush writes.

According to Rush, Pittsburgh is a city that has benefitted from technological advances, going from a “post-industrial” city to a hub of modern technological innovation. Embracing technology has proven good not only for the city’s economy, but for it’s pride as well.

But our relationship with machines remains complicated. As Parramore points out, when machines are working toward our societal advantage, we tend to glorify the capabilities of a mechanized future — as is the case with Pittsburgh. On the other hand, when we see machines as a threat to our way of life, we demonize their potential a la The Terminator franchise or any other slew of dystopian science fiction.

“Whether we consider technology a blessing or a curse seems to depend on how the economy is doing,” Parramore says.

Last month, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson reviewed reports that suggest close to half of American jobs could be automated within the next 20 years.

Thompson says that it is primarily “routine-based jobs” that are in the most danger. Everything from telemarketers to tax preparers are positioned to become obsolete. He warns, however, that “we might be on the edge of a breakthrough moment in robotics and artificial intelligence,” which would raise new possibilities for which jobs will be replaced.

Add to that Bill Gates’ most recent warning that raising the federal minimum wage (a proposal that has large support among liberals and moderates) will likely increase the risk of jobs being replaced with automation.

To Parramore’s point, The Economist seems to agree with Thompson that looking to the past to understand the future of automation may be misguided. “For much of the 20th century, those arguing that technology brought ever more jobs and prosperity looked to have the better of the debate,” The Economist said last month. “Yet some now fear that a new era of automation enabled by ever more powerful and capable computers could work out differently.”

“The picture suggested by this evidence is a complex one,” the magazine concludes. “It is also more worrying than many economists and politicians have been prepared to admit.”

JJ Feinauer is a Web producer for Moneywise and Opinion on DeseretNews.com. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: @jjfeinauer.

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