Should potential job losses from automation and artificial intelligence worry you?

As technology advances, the mixed feelings are getting real. The excitement of progress and man’s self-satisfaction is coming at the expense of things like “ethics” and jobs. I’ve been following some conversation on this matter, but because ethics have become extremely subjective, let me talk about jobs briefly instead. We’ll talk about issues revolving around ethics some other time when I’ve had breakfast and have the energy.

You know for sure that something is making noise when films, particularly soapies, start incorporating it into their scripts. If you watch Isidingo on SABC 3 religiously… or not, you’ll know about the ongoing crisis of mine workers who are protesting over the introduction of the new machinery because it is threatening their employment and subsequently their livelihood.

See, employment is much associated with livelihood hence the first reaction to anything that threatens it is a NO! But let’s look at it a bit more closely by asking ourselves: Is it the employment we want or it’s the means to survive we are more concerned about? Sounds obvious but trust me, there’s actually a lot of people picking the answer you didn’t. So for both your sakes I’ll address both.

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Say your answer was employment: I would assume by employment you mean keeping busy and being productive (feel free to let me know if this assumption doesn’t hold for you). So the next question would be: is being employed the only way you can keep busy and productive? If yes, it’s probably because that’s the only way we’ve been exposed to, so somehow we are limited to think that it indeed is the only way. If your answer is no, then please share with us how so we also learn one or two things from you.

The second option to the initial question is that all you want is to make a living or is to make money. I have a follow up question to that: who said that the ‘traditional’ employment is the only way to make money?? Remember the industrial revolution? Do you think that everyone was excited about it? Do you think that no one worried about their job being replaced by a machine? But how did that turn out? Did everyone lose their jobs and starve to death? Well, that’s the beauty of life, we evolve and adapt! Key is learning how to adapt and to adapt fast.

However, I understand that there is a transition stage to worry about.

During this transition, the key is flexibility! Be flexible. You can actually choose to be a jack of many trades and still master them all (see what I did right there?). The idea is not about solely focusing on one thing, yes it could be your main but you still need to learn other side items that can help you carry out that thing more efficiently. There’s no harm in learning how to be a public speaker even as a coder or learning a few tricks on how to balance a cashbook as a journo. What I refuse to believe is that a person can only be good at one thing or even that a person can only have one interest in life, that’s impossible – at least Zimbabwe has taught me that.

Apart from the transition stage, which we should start working on now by the way, I don’t really think the disruption is as bad as it looks. The change may be dramatic, but one thing for sure is it’s not totally unpredictable. Besides, fortunately for Zimbabwe (in a very ironic way) we have more time to transition since our tech adoption is already slow – let’s take advantage of that. We can start thinking (or even copy) ways in which to deal with this prior to it’s ‘arrival’; start creating new types of employment which will still be compatible with automation; start phasing out courses or degrees that are likely to be of no use in the next 20 years etc. I know it’s a lot of hard work, research and all but is it not worth it?

Image credit: pixabay

9 Comments

  1. X says:

    Nothing really scary about AI. All it means is that we need a highly skilled workforce in place of a lower skilled workforce. The repetitive tasks can be left to AI whilst we focus on creating more.

    1. Peter G. Raeth, Ph.D. says:

      The jobs remaining after and created by automation move the “average required” bar to the right on the IQ (natural gifts) curve, beyond the overall-average allocation of those gifts. Thus, many of those disenfranchised by automation end up marginalized. No matter how hard they try and how hard they desire to do so, they will not be able to learn how to do the new jobs.

      Here in the States, as automation and exportation of jobs, and more people are brought in, the worker/jobs ratio has increased to the point where our past president bragged that 50% of the population did not make enough money to have to pay federal income tax. How does a consumer society grow if the people’s income continues to shrink?

      A problem here too is that companies generally focus only on the quarterly profit report. It is their sole metric of value, regardless of who or what is destroyed. This is a wrong application of capitalism. As such, companies do not see their role in training and expect our schools to switch from education to training so that employees “graduate” as plug-and-play components. Education is the foundation upon which training is built. Otherwise, people become throwaways that can be swapped out for the next batch.

      Where does the money for re-educating and retraining people come from? Plus, we can not assume that all institutions are equal. America is flooded with high-cost/low-quality institutions whose degrees are not respected by industry, which does not hire their graduates. In other cases, companies spiral-down their business capability so as to make use of such people. As the people spiral down, companies spiral down, and the nation spirals down.

      Automation can be necessary and valuable in many cases. However, when it comes to dominate so that people are disenfranchised and marginalized, it is a horrible master.

  2. TheKing says:

    I feel it’s going to be an issue in some countries. Take S.A for example were there is actually a shortage of unskilled/semi-skilled jobs. The people actually want shop teller jobs, but Pick and Pay plans to automate these jobs. By automating these jobs, they create new jobs, but these jobs require education and skills which are in shortage in S.A. Now the people are going to turn political and blame “White monopoly capital”.

    The same story applies to Zim, automating agriculture could actually cause “political” problems. Consider a farm that employs 100 people and it’s fully automated and reduces employment to 5-10 people. Our government is betting on agriculture to create jobs hence they may resist this tech.

    1. BTM says:

      You are right.It will be interesting how this is going to work out,because of political reasons i foresee in some countries there being eventually a restriction on the level of automation.The new economy will require people to relearn at a much faster pace than before,which might not be possible because of other factors like politics,affordability,willingness of companies to invest in training unskilled and semi skilled employees,willingness of the workforce to relearn etc.
      My fear is companies are more focused on AI to save costs and maximise profits and at the same time are neglacting the Human being factor part of it and the impact of AI on political and social stability

      1. Peter G. Raeth, Ph.D. says:

        BTM has a very thoughtful put on this matter. I would add that we should not forget the business case for automation, minimizing or eliminating the most troublesome and costly part of the business, humans. Automation is essential in some cases but not to the point where people are marginalized.

  3. Trycolyn says:

    Some would argue that the whole idea of automation is people centred – making people’s lives easier.

    Let’s look at hard labour blue collar jobs, most have health issues attached to them or let’s use an easy example of mining…instead of a mine collapsing with people inside, why not with machinery inside, it might be costly but its definitely not as costly as human life.

    1. Peter G. Raeth, Ph.D. says:

      Automation may well be necessary in some cases. However, whomever is displaced by automation needs to be taught new skills that they are capable of absorbing for jobs that continue to exist. They should not simply be cast out on the street. Yet, industry does not appear to have an interest in that. They think their only responsibility is creating a bigger number on next quarter’s profit report. The government can not be trusted with the task since they only know how to throw money at something, typically money coming from steadily increasing debt that has to be repaid eventually lest that nation end up bankrupt, like Greece and other nations who thought they could borrow their way to prosperity.

  4. Trycolyn says:

    Also to add, this is probably a long shot but I’ll shoot anyway.

    I’ll use an over simplified example :
    If an agriculture company that initially employed 100 begins to employ 5, it means it makes more profits which is also equal to higher tax for the government… Multiply that by every other company doing the same.

    A functional government would invest this money in things that will help the situation such as education- it could be short courses that teach people other relevant and much needed skills. These courses could be made of little or no cost at all particularly for the retrenched workers.

    If the workers are too old or no longer compatible for this new education thing, they could get early retirement packages from the government and still afford life.

    It’s not necessarily every job that’s being replaced, even if it were, it always follows that some new niche will open up.

    1. Peter G. Raeth, Ph.D. says:

      A most thoughtful idea Trycolyn. My concern is that companies are quite skilled at avoiding taxes. Also of concern is the proliferation of high-cost/low-quality institutions whose graduates do not get hired. This is the result of government simply throwing money at things and the notion that all degrees are equal. Industry is not fooled into believing such nonsense.

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