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Will Robots and AI Take Your Job?

Automation facilitates movement of shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Will Robots and AI Take Your Job?

In Edward Bellamy’s classic Looking Backward, the protagonist Julian West wakes up from a 113-year slumber and finds the United States in 2000 has changed dramatically from 1887. People stop working at age forty-five and devote their lives to mentoring other people and engaging in volunteer work that benefits the overall community. There are short work weeks for employees, and everyone receives full benefits, food, and housing.

The reason is that new technologies of the period have enabled people to be very productive while working part-time. Businesses do not need large numbers of employees, so individuals can devote most of their waking hours to hobbies, volunteering, and community service. In conjunction with periodic work stints, they have time to pursue new skills and personal identities that are independent of their jobs.

In the current era, developed countries may be on the verge of a similar transition. Robotics and machine learning have improved productivity and enhanced the economies of many nations. Artificial intelligence (AI) has advanced into finance, transportation, defense, and energy management. The internet of things (IoT) is facilitated by high-speed networks and remote sensors to connect people and businesses. In all of this, there is a possibility of a new era that could improve the lives of many people.

Yet amid these possible benefits, there is widespread fear that robots and AI will take jobs and throw millions of people into poverty. A Pew Research Center study asked 1,896 experts about the impact of emerging technologies and found that “half of these experts (48 percent) envision a future in which robots and digital agents [will] have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”

These fears have been echoed by detailed analyses showing anywhere from a 14 to 54 percent automation impact on jobs. For example, a Bruegel analysis found that “54% of EU jobs [are] at risk of computerization.” Using European data, they argue that job losses are likely to be significant and people should prepare for large-scale disruption.

Meanwhile, Oxford University researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne claim that technology will transform many sectors of life. They studied 702 occupational groupings and found that “47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years.”

A McKinsey Global Institute analysis of 750 jobs concluded that “45% of paid activities could be automated using ‘currently demonstrated technologies’ and . . . 60% of occupations could have 30% or more of their processes automated.”[6] A more recent McKinsey report, “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained,” found that 30 percent of “work activities” could be automated by 2030 and up to 375 million workers worldwide could be affected by emerging technologies.

Researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) focused on “tasks” as opposed to “jobs” and found fewer job losses. Using task-related data from 32 OECD countries, they estimated that 14 percent of jobs are highly automatable and another 32 have a significant risk of automation. Although their job loss estimates are below those of other experts, they concluded that “low qualified workers are likely to bear the brunt of the adjustment costs as the automatibility of their jobs is higher compared to highly qualified workers.”

While some dispute the dire predictions on grounds new positions will be created to offset the job losses, the fact that all these major studies report significant workforce disruptions should be taken seriously. If the employment impact falls at the 38 percent mean of these forecasts, Western democracies likely could resort to authoritarianism as happened in some countries during the Great Depression of the 1930s in order to keep their restive populations in check. If that happened, wealthy elites would require armed guards, security details, and gated communities to protect themselves, as is the case in poor countries today with high income inequality. The United States would look like Syria or Iraq, with armed bands of young men with few employment prospects other than war, violence, or theft.

Yet even if the job ramifications lie more at the low end of disruption, the political consequences still will be severe. Relatively small increases in unemployment or underemployment have an outsized political impact. We saw that a decade ago when 10 percent unemployment during the Great Recession spawned the Tea party and eventually helped to make Donald Trump president.

With some workforce disruption virtually guaranteed by trends already underway, it is safe to predict American politics will be chaotic and turbulent during the coming decades. As innovation accelerates and public anxiety intensifies, right-wing and left-wing populists will jockey for voter support. Government control could gyrate between very conservative and very liberal leaders as each side blames a different set of scapegoats for economic outcomes voters don’t like. The calm and predictable politics of the post-World War II era likely will become a distant memory as the American system moves toward Trumpism on steroids.

Darrell M. West is author of the Brookings book “The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation.” This article originally appeared here.

Growing US manufacturing sector has had an impact on shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

How Technology is Changing Manufacturing

When Walmart pledged last year to buy an extra $250 billion in U.S.-made goods over the next decade, it appeared to be just what was needed to help move America’s putative manufacturing renaissance from rhetoric to reality. The company says consumers can now buy everything from U.S.-made flat-screen TVs, light bulbs, and towels and curtains in its stores and on its website.

The flat-screen TVs, made in Winnsboro, South Carolina by Element Electronics, may be the campaigns biggest surprise to date. Today, Elements 315,000-square-foot plant in South Carolina has six assembly lines making 32- and 40-inch TVs that are now available in all of Walmart’s more than 4,000 U.S. stores. The switch has led to significant savings in ocean freight charges and customs duties on finished goods—though like so many companies involved in the initiative Element has had difficulty finding domestic suppliers.

U.S. manufacturing has seen tough times over the past few decades. Employment in that sector has dropped from around 14 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1996 to almost eight percent now. Many jobs have shifted overseas as employers seek low-cost labor and nations with fewer safety and environmental regulations.

But in recent years, the outlook has turned more bullish. There has been a resurgence in American manufacturing. After reaching a low point of 11.5 million jobs in 2010, manufacturing employment increased to around 12.3 million in 2016. That still is down from 14.5 million in 2006, but better than the depths of the Great Recession.

Indeed, a recent New York Times article found that manufacturing output has achieved a record high in the most recent quarter. Workers now are producing 47 percent more than 20 years ago. Through the development of automation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing, the sector has bounced back along with the overall economy.

Technology is one of the reasons for this resurgence. We are seeing the rise of automation and robotics in many sectors. Some restaurants now are using robots to deliver food and are deploying self-ordering kiosks for customers. There are driverless cars in California, Washington, and Texas. Amazon now has around 15,000 robots who work along its 50,000 humans.

The number of industrial robots is rising. In 2013, there were 1.2 million robots in factories and warehouses. The total rose to 1.5 million in 2014 and is expected to increase to 1.9 million next year. Japan leads the way in use of industrial robots with over 306,000 robots in use, compared to 237,000 in North America, 182,000 in China, and 175,000 in South Korea and Germany each.

Robots are getting more sophisticated and adept at performing complex tasks. The cost differential with humans is narrowing, to the advantage of robots. The Wendy’s restaurant chain recently announced that it was introducing self-service kiosks for ordering in its 6,000 restaurants.

Estimates for labor cost savings in various countries through automation and robotics now are averaging around 16 percent in industrialized nations. But places such as South Korea have seen 33 percent cost savings, and Japan has seen a 25 percent savings.

The convergence of these developments means that robots are helping to increase overall output and save money, but not helping to add jobs. In looking at data from 2010 to 2016, manufacturing has seen 10 to 20 percent increases in output, but only a two- to five-percent increase in jobs.

The slow growth of manufacturing jobs has troubling ramifications for employment patterns and the overall workforce. According to economist Larry Summers, “if current trends continue, it could well be that a generation from now a quarter of middle-aged men will be out of work at any given moment”. That has enormous political and social consequences. It helps us to understand the 2016 electoral success both of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Voters have a sense that things are not going well for working class votes and may actually get worse. Those individuals are understandably worried and anxious.

Future job projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that most job creation over the next decade is going to come in health care and professional services. Indeed, by 2022, manufacturing jobs are expected to drop.

This means that schools need to restructure their curricula so that students get better training in science, technology, engineering, and math. There is a great need for workers with STEM skills as systems analysts, software developers, and biomedical engineers, among other professions.

The policy challenges for manufacturing are enormous. The country needs to invest in infrastructure, reform tax policy, and boost trade and global markets. The world is at an inflection point in a number of these areas, and there are many threats to globalization and free trade today.

Small firms are particularly at risk. They create many of the jobs in the United States, but it is hard for them to achieve the economies of scale and productivity boosts of advanced manufacturing. High upfront costs make it difficult to adopt the latest technologies and compete for workers with the most advanced skills.

Maintaining competitiveness amidst these domestic and global challenges is a big issue for many firms. Companies need to invest in technology, deploy data analytics, and embrace emerging tools such as 3D printing and smart appliances. Those that do this will be able to compete while others get left behind.

Darrell West is vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. His current research focuses on educational technology, health information technology, and mobile technology. This article originally appeared here.