W hen I think about artificial intelligence, particularly concerns about its effect on jobs, I’m reminded what Franklin D. Roosevelt said at the height of the Great Depression in his first inaugural address in March of 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
Every generation of new technology confronts the fear of change. Fear, by its nature, can often drown out hope and possibility. In the 1950s, for example, the introduction of mainframe computers caused fear about the loss of jobs. Fear at that time was not limited to business; it made its way into popular culture, as evidenced by the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn film “Desk Set” from 1957.
But the history of technology since then suggests that the fear is usually exaggerated. As Martin Ford said in his 2015 book “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future”, the lesson of history is that “the economy has consistently adjusted to advancing technology by creating new employment opportunities and that these new jobs often require new skills and pay higher wages.”
Will history repeat itself when it comes to artificial intelligence? Will those jobs replaced by AI algorithms result in the creation of new, higher value roles and functions in manufacturing companies? Or will AI power a whole new wave of automation that will result in what some term an “employment apocalypse” affecting not only manufacturing but producing a political and social crisis as well?
We may not know the answer to those questions for some time, but what is likely to happen is that some jobs will indeed go away even as new ones are created. The key question is the balance between the two and how adaptable individuals and companies can be.
There is reason to be optimistic and to reject what Roosevelt called “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”. Research by MLC member UI Labs into emerging digital jobs in manufacturing, for example, reveals scores of new functions and roles that will be needed in the digital economy. Frankly, the real issue for the manufacturing industry may not be in generating new jobs, but in adapting to them and finding people to fill them. M