Technology engulfs our lives.
Since the birth of the steam engine in the 1830s, we haven’t looked back. However, the excitement that marked the unprecedented profits brought on by the Industrial Revolution slowly transformed into unease about the future of manual labor. Today technology critics, economists, and policy makers alike are concerned with the disruption of the job market brought on by technology.
I recently stumbled upon a Forbes article dated at the start of this year with the disconcerting title “Technology Has Already Taken Over 90% Of The Jobs Humans Used To Do.” The article lists the major jobs that have been replaced by machines since the dawn of the twentieth century, from farmers and carriage drivers to the human computers NASA relied on to calculate the trajectories for its very first launches. For example, the following statistics paints a picture of the extent to which technology has influenced the freight market: “If it took as many people now to move freight as it did in 1947, we would need well over three million railroad workers to handle present volumes. (Of course, that level of employment would raise freight charges by a lot; consequently, nothing close to today’s volume would actually move.)”
I do not claim any expertise in the economics of how technology has mutated the job market. However, it is important to make the distinction that technology is shifting the type of labor available in the market, and not simply reducing the demand for labor. This is not a new notion, but there exist very polarized views on the idea. The author of a 2015 Boston University study, James E. Bessen, claims “technology rarely automates major occupations completely,” and that many occupational jobs declined for a variety of reasons. In an interview, the CEO of Soft Robotics, Carl Vause, implied that it is the lower level jobs that no one in particular wants which are being replaced. On the other hand, some scholars object to this view and extend the decline in manual occupational jobs to a severe redistribution of wealth in the economy.
One popular sentiment is that technology is killing labor. For example, in 1840 70% of the population in the US was engaged in agriculture, compared to 1.4% in 2016. Similarly, automation in the manufacturing industry has reduced the need for manual labor. Although we cannot disregard these statistics, I posit that if technology is killing jobs, only technology can save them. In fact, Computer Science tells us exactly this.
Every Computer Science program has some equivalent to Theory of Computation in which students are taught the building blocks of modern day computation. It focuses heavily on what is known as set theory. I recall a lengthy and fever-inducing discussion that led up to the following conclusion: that there will always be jobs which cannot be automated. The following is an attempt to simplify this theory: a “set” is defined mathematically as a group of distinct objects. We say that there are as many problems in the world as there are sets: uncountably many. The whole business of automation aims to write computer programs implemented in different forms of technology to solve these problems. However mathematically, we can only write countably many computer programs. From this theory (which has been proven using a rigorous mathematical proof), we can infer that there will always be jobs for which no computer program can be written to perform. This is also an indication that human beings will have to change their skill set to meet the demands of an automated industry.
Technology has replaced some forms of labor. Yes. More specifically, technology can replace any labor that is algorithmic (or repetitive) in nature. But human intelligence is not algorithmic. We are built to adapt. We don’t have to think like machines to have job security. We have to think like humans. If the job market is sinking, innovation is the key to staying afloat. We should not disregard the fact that technology and automation have created jobs that never previously existed: distance-learning coordinators, green marketers, informatics nurse specialists, nano-systems engineers, and the list goes on.
So computer science tells us that our economic worth depends on our ability to create, not our ability to perform repetitive tasks. At the core of this idea is the pressure it places on the education system to foster creative and critical thinkers. Policy makers with the power to influence the design of the education system should follow suit and focus on preparing students for the future economy.