In the late sixteenth century, a clergyman named William Lee created the “stocking frame.” This machine was the earliest iteration of what we now call sewing machines, and its proud inventor brought it to Elizabeth I, seeking a patent. She refused to grant one out of fear that the machine would throw hand-knitters out of work. This was one of the earliest instances of our still-prevalent fear of automation. In fact, three centuries later, the sewing machine re-emerged as the subject of the Luddites’ ire, to the point that Parliament passed the “Frame Breaking Act,” which named breaking sewing machines a capital felony. The machines continued to evolve, and people continued to have jobs.
Today, almost every single job is partially automated. The UK unemployment rate is at 4.8 percent and the U.S. unemployment rate is at 4.9 percent. As James Bessen of The Atlantic recently reported, “On average, since 1980, occupations with above-average computer use have grown substantially faster (0.9 percent per year) than those without.”
And yet, there is still an ever-increasing fear that robots will steal our jobs and that they will become “our new computer overlords,” as Ken Jennings, the famous Jeopardy contestant who lost to a computer, called them. But as a controversial man once said (Karl Marx), “History repeats itself.” And while this is often a bad thing (war, violations of human rights, pollution, etc), in the case of automation, this is a good thing. History has shown us, since at least the 16th century, that automation ultimately creates more jobs than it kills.
And the creation of jobs is not the only thing that automation is doing for us. I’ve compiled five salient ways in which automation is tangibly improving our lives.
1. Eradication of Harmful Working Conditions
One of the greatest things about machines is they can’t get sick and die, they can only stop working. According to the International Labor Organization, “115 million children, aged 5-17, [work] in dangerous conditions in sectors as diverse as agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, service industries, hotels, bars, restaurants, fast food establishments, and domestic service. Worldwide, the ILO estimates that some 22,000 children are killed at work every year.”
This statistic bears repeating: 22,000 children are killed at work every year. As automation becomes more prevalent, and therefore cheaper, machines will be able to take over jobs that are dangerous, toxic, or in other ways harmful to humans.
2. Increased Globalization
Mobile automation in particular will make it faster and easier for people to communicate from country to country. Instant translation, for instance, makes it possible to message with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you. Politically, this is hugely important, and will make for more rapid decision-making and more effective communication. For companies and individuals this will make it easier to create global products and companies, and will increase customer satisfaction (as companies can automatically message in various languages with their customers).
3. Increased Productivity
Take the legal industry: for years, people had to sort through literal piles of documents to find ones that were relevant to a case. Now, machines do this, and they not only do it faster and cheaper, but they are also more accurate. Consequently, electronic discovery software is now a multibillion dollar industry. And guess what? Paralegal and legal-support jobs have actually grown faster than the labor force as a whole, with over 50,000 new jobs having been added since 2000.
The reason is simple. When automation increases accuracy and productivity, costs go down; you no longer have to pay legal fees for 10 hours of work. This means more people can afford to get legal assistance, and thus the need for paralegals and lawyers goes up. Once again, increased productivity lowers product cost, which increases demand.
4. More Leisure Time
Self driving cars are a perfect example of how automation and AI will give humans more time to be human. We will be able to read, talk with our spouses, do work, etc. for an extra hour per day, for the average American (much more for the average major city dwelling American).
Ford’s (News - Alert) assembly line is another excellent example of this. Henry Ford lowered the amount of time that it took to build a car from 12 hours to two hours, which in turn made his cars incredibly affordable. The result? Ford doubled workers’ pay and shortened the work day.
5. Flatter Education
Education is already being automated. Through online courses, online resources, and computer tutorials, pretty much anyone with access to the Internet can learn marketable skills. This makes the workforce flatter; you don’t need to have gone to an Ivy League to become a software engineer, for example.
The only necessary skill for people wanting to break into a job market will be knowing how to use a computer. If you know this, you can teach yourself skills that are coveted by high-paying employers. Automated education strengthens the declining middle class and promotes “bootstrap” mentalities, which is, after all, what America is all about.