The automation — job loss fallacy

For years, technology has been viewed as a substitute for labor. Employing a robot is viewed as ‘not employing’ 10 assembly line workers. In the age of soft bots, employing a virtual assistant is viewed as a job taken away from a human assistant. Msg.ai proudly announced recently that Sony Pictures replaced 70 human operators with one AI chatbot — now, if that’s not robots stealing our jobs, what is?

While it may appear that technology is eating into human jobs, the mechanics of how this works is not quite so. Msg.ai did not completely replace the operators at Sony Pictures, and the robotic arms did not wipe out the entire assembly line staff at Toyota. People are needed and still exist in both those workplaces, technology helped make a few people productive enough to produce the same level of output as a lot more people produced before the introduction of the technology. Simply put, technology helps make people more productive. A more productive person can produce more output. Therefore, in order to produce the same amount of output as before, fewer people are required. But this is no new story in human history.

Technology giveth and technology taketh away

A long way back, every one had a job: to find food and shelter. The technology of systematically planting seeds (or agriculture) made food more readily available, thereby allowing a few people to not work towards finding food everyday — getting them out of a job. Advancements in agricultural technology allowed one farmer to produce far more food than he and his family needed, allowing more people (who were not so good at farming) to be able to ‘not-work’ towards growing food. Did advancements in agricultural technology wipe out jobs for humans? Certainly not. It allowed people who were previously entirely employed in the search for food to spend time creating value elsewhere (creating tools that would assist and make farmers more productive). A whole new economy of creating stuff or providing services in exchange for food began.

The very manufacturing jobs that technology is accused of robbing, would not have existed had it not been for the technological revolution. Automation in manufacturing led to lower prices, resulting in technology products (think computers) being widely available to the masses. Advancements in computer technology led to a whole new economy, the internet economy. The very jobs msg.ai is accused of robbing, would never have existed had it not been for telecommunication technology.

Telling someone back in the beginning of human history that people would have abundant food sitting inches away from them in return of pushing around an inanimate mouse, would seem absolutely absurd. Technology allows people to produce output, from lesser input — this “magical” ability to produce more from little is perceived as loss of a job, while it is the same magical ability that has created every job since hunting.

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