Automation and the threat to jobs: Policy implications for societies need to be addressed

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The mood was optimistic at this year’s World Economic Forum. Despite the economic wobbles in Argentina and emerging markets, the world economy feels more stable than for some years. But the Davos elite has a new cause for worry – that rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence may take their jobs away.

Leaders of Silicon Valley technology companies formed the most optimistic faction in Davos. Marc Benioff, chief executive of the cloud computing company, evangelised about how the rise of mobile smartphones and sensing devices could transform entire industries. “The technology we have been given is unbelievable,” he said.
It has also renewed fears about the impact of technology on employment. When computers are capable of advanced-pattern recognition and beat humans at chess; when cars drive themselves and robots perform intricate tasks, what jobs will be left? Will machines take over work, causing a blight of unemployment among the university educated?

Growth in trade and changes in technology over the past three decades have damaged employment in advanced economies. As low-skilled jobs in manufacturing and services have been automated, or moved to lower-wage economies, manual and clerical workers in wealthier nations have struggled.

The beneficiaries are the world’s consumers, who buy goods and services more cheaply, and the managers and professionals whose jobs have so far been secure. Entrepreneurs and the “one per cent” have gained most from the rise of the highly unequal labour market. Now, the chill wind of automation may blow on the peaks.

Some tasks previously carried out by professionals – such as scanning documents for relevant information – have been turned over to software programs. Pessimists argue that services such as consultancy, accounting and the law, in which professionals analyse information, are broadly vulnerable to automation.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google – a company that is working on emerging technologies such as self-driving cars and robots – is worried. “The race is between computers and people and the people need to win … In this fight, it is very important that we find the things that humans are really good at,” he said.

If so, policy makers have hardly begun to adjust to the implications for society. In Davos, Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, called for a new policy response. “We don’t yet have the Gladstone, the Teddy Roosevelt or the Bismarck of the technology era,” he said.

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