IBM “mechanical excavators vs. teaspoons” ad (Saatchi & Saatchi, early ‘80s)

Those robots stealing our jobs…

On June 15, a tweet reminded me of this IBM ad that appears in the illustration, created by Saatchi & Saatchi in the early 1980s: two people watching a mechanical excavator at work, the first one lamenting for the twelve people with shovels who could be working there, and the second pointing out that if it is a question of creating work, the same job could be done by two hundred people with teaspoons.

The background of the quote takes us back to US economist Milton Friedman in the 1960s and before that to Canadian politician William Aberhart, who used it to show the absurdity of prioritizing the generation of jobs over efficiency. Of course we can employ more people if we provide them with inadequate tools, but in reality, the purpose of employing people is to do a job, and everything that contributes to getting that work done less efficiently is, as such, negative.

We live in times when the debate about machines, algorithms, robots and other technology displacing humans from jobs is widespread. What will the poor taxi drivers and truck drivers do when vehicles can drive themselves? And the stock market traders when algorithms buy and sell shares? Oh, my God, and the advertising planners, now that advertising is machine-negotiated in real time! Not to mention call-centers, customer service operators or supermarket check-out staff!

If protecting jobs is the priority, then give people inefficient tools, protect their work by prohibiting the entry of technologies, and continue to work inefficiently. If people wonder why they are spending so many hours doing something that a machine could do much better and with fewer mistakes, just ask them: “Would you rather be here doing a meaningless job, or would you rather be starving at home?”

Holding onto positions once it is demonstrated they can be done better by a machine makes no sense. For a long time, we have been seeing countless jobs disappear simply because technology made them unnecessary. Now, the pace of technology has accelerated, the number of tasks that a machine is able to do better than we can is growing rapidly, and we are all afraid of being next.

Yes, it’s a problem. But the solution will never be to prevent the use of technology or to tax it so as to make it less competitive. The solution is to make it easier to help people to do other things, to improve education so we are more versatile and can adapt to other tasks, to reinvent ourselves, to look for other tasks likely to generate value, or create a social safety net to protect people from falling below the poverty line. We need social, political or educational solutions that redefine the concept of work, whereby it is something we want to do because it is meaningful and creates value for someone and that in any case will be more interesting than the absurd alternative of trying to prevent technology from doing so. Among other reasons, because in today’s economy, it is simply not possible to ignore technological change: there will always be a company in a country able to use it, thereby gaining a competitive advantage.

Yes, chatbots eliminate jobs. But they also create other jobs, and while working in a call center was often deeply alienating, poorly paid and subject to high turnover, the latter offer far more interesting possibilities. Whenever we face a technology with the potential to eliminate jobs, we should ask how much room to maneuver we have, and above all, which side we want to be on. Only one side will be sustainable.

(En español, aquí)