During a discussion at this year’s SXSW, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14th District) suggested that automation could ultimately prove a good thing.
“We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work,” she told the audience, according to The Verge. “We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”
Automation, she added, could free up time for people to create art, invent things, and generally “[enjoy] the world that we live in.” However, she didn’t offer a specific plan for automating the U.S. workforce to the point of fully automated luxury communism (as Boing Boing so adeptly put it).
A cursory glance at Twitter shows that Ocasio-Cortez praising automation was enough to trigger a lot of Very Smart People on the Internet.
Nonetheless, automation (and its impact on jobs) is always worth a discussion. At this point, analysts generally agree that A.I., machine learning, and other automation-centric technologies will continue to erode human jobs in key sectors, including technology.
In late 2018, for instance, a report from analyst firm Forrester suggested that automation would kill 10 percent of jobs this year. Even as software reduces the need for customer-service agents, warehouse workers, and other employees, it’s also boosting demand for human app builders, machine-learning specialists, and robotics experts. All told, Forrester estimated, intelligent software will create the equivalent of 3 percent of the current job stock.
But if the trend toward automation continues apace, the job cuts could accelerate, and that could have a negative impact on a lot of employees (no matter what Ocasio-Cortez says). This past holiday season, Citi analyst Mark May stated that Amazon was succeeding in its long-term plan to automate its warehouses, based on seasonal hiring data. And Amazon isn’t the only company rushing to cut human costs. It’s unrealistic to expect that every human worker who loses a job to a machine will quickly find a new one.
A few years ago, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates floated the idea of a “robot tax” to help mitigate the societal disruption related to automation. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level,” he said in a video posted by Quartz. In theory, that money could go to job training or some form of universal basic income (although as FiveThirtyEight pointed out at the time, determining eligibility for universal basic income would prove a logistically nightmarish task, even before you tackle the program’s insane cost).
Those who ultimately keep their jobs will have skills that machines can’t replicate, such as creativity and empathy. In fact, older tech workers who have mastered the gentle arts of communication and collaboration might find themselves “safer” than younger workers who have technical skills but can’t necessarily manage human beings. No matter how sophisticated the machines become, “soft skills” can prove vital to maintaining your current position—and advancing your career.