Religion & Liberty Online

On man vs. robots, don’t trust the economic models

Given the breakneck pace of improvements in automation and artificial intelligence, fears about job loss are taking more space in the cultural imagination. Symbolized by President Obama’s famous laments about ATM machines and the more recent concerns about Amazon’s “job-killing” grocery-store roboclerks, the anxiety is palpable and persistent.

Enter the economic planners and doomsayers, using elaborate models and forecasts to affirm such fears, predicting the rise of robot overlords and the demise of human labor. Take the famous 2013 study by economic historian Carl Frey and Oxford engineer Michael Osborne, which loudly estimated that 47 percent of U.S. employment is at “high risk” of being automated in the next decade. Or consider the more recent study by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, which predicted that 40 percent of Australian jobs are at risk.

Such estimates paint a dismal economic future wherein humans are pushed to the side with little to contribute and even less to gain. But what might this picture be missing?

As Ross Gittins explains, the common modeling (a la Frey and Osborne) includes significant errors, oversights, and inconsistencies when applied to the real world:

For instance, the colleagues judged that surveyors, accountants, tax agents and marketing specialists were automatable occupations, whereas Australian employment in these has grown strongly in the past five years….Frey and Osborne say the need for dexterous fingers is an impediment to automation, but their method predicts there is an automation probability of 98 per cent for watch repairers.

Second, Frey and Osborne’s modelling makes the extreme assumption that if an occupation is automated then all jobs in that occupation are destroyed. The advent of driverless vehicles, for instance, is assumed to eliminate all taxi drivers and chauffeurs, truck drivers, couriers and more.

Third, their modelling assumes that if it’s technically feasible to automate a job it will be, without any need for employers to decide it would be profitable to do so. Similarly, it assumes there will be no shortage of the skilled workers needed to set up and use the automated technology.

More importantly, even if the predictions are generally correct about high-level trends — that certain jobs, sectors, and industries will indeed be largely automated — they fail to recognize or account for the unseen and unforeseen developments that result from automation. In turn, they ignore the transformative role of human potential and ingenuity amid technological progress:

More broadly, their modelling involves no attempt to take account of the jobs created, directly and indirectly, by the process of automation. No one gets a job selling, installing or servicing all the new robots. Competition between the newly robotised firms doesn’t oblige them to lower their prices, meaning their customers don’t have more to spend – and hence create jobs – in other parts of the economy.

All that happens, apparently, is that employment collapses and profits soar. But if it happens like that it will be the first time in 200 years of mechanisation and 40 years of computerisation.

Such an outlook requires not only a static view of the economy, but a remarkably dim view of human creativity and possibility. If we look to history, we see that automation has led to greater prosperity and productivity, making more room for humans, not less.

This is precisely because we are not mere machines, consigned to junk yards when particular solutions or services are rendered obsolete. We are creative and imaginative human persons created in the image of a creator God. We are fully capable of adapting, mobilizing, and innovating our modes of service to be in line with his purposes in the earth. When the economic conditions change and mechanization or automation replaces old ways of meeting human needs, innovation comes and new human services are created.

Automation will continue to disrupt our old ways of doing things. But knowing what we do about the past and the future of human possibility, we needn’t be fearful of our own position and power. As we survey the barrage of predictable reports about the end of human labor or the rise of robot dominance, let’s be sure to wield our hope and skepticism accordingly.

Image: Stock Snap, CC0

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.