How important are robots? Well, that depends, how important is your job, the economy, and the future of world stability? As automation plays an increasingly important role in manufacturing, it continues to expand into other industries as well: law, medicine, and stock trading, just to name a few. As robots and narrow artificial intelligences creep into roles traditionally occupied by humans, we’ve got to ask ourselves: is all this automation good or bad for the job market? CNBC recently waded into the debate during a brief “Squawk on the Street” segment featuring two commentators we’ve seen before: Jeff Burnstein of the Robotic Industries Association and Martin Ford, author of The Lights in the Tunnel (a book on the impact of automation on the economy). Watch that five minute discussion in the video below. While this conversation is much too brief, and much too shallow, to do the debate justice, it’s exciting to see the mainstream media pushing the topic into the public discourse.
The opinions of the two experts in the video are far from unexpected. Jeff Burnstein and the RIA have repeatedly made the claim that a transition to automation in manufacturing saves American jobs by curtailing outsourcing to cheaper labor markets. (The robots do the physical labor, humans in the US get better jobs as robot technicians,etc). For his part, Martin Ford has been one of the most vocal voices warning us that large scale automation could lead to a collapse in the global economy as hundreds of millions of workers from all walks of life lose their jobs and can no longer afford to buy any of the goods and services the automated economy produces. Still its good to see them get the chance to make these arguments on TV.
What I find disappointing is the level of interest in the news anchors – they really just seem to want to get through this topic quickly. While CNBC deserves some credit for even putting this debate on television, their team doesn’t truly seem to understand the gravity of the situation. Ford is predicting the collapse of the world economy if we let automation run forward uncontrolled. His solution is almost as radical as that theory: an enormously expanded welfare state where governments pay people to educate themselves and stay busy. Burnstein isn’t painting a less important picture. If he and the RIA are correct, the outsourcing of jobs from the US to markets like India, China, and South America could reverse itself to a very large degree. That means a major increase in the need for high tech workers in the US, and a drastic cut in the money flowing into cheap labor markets – who knows what kind of socio-political impact that could have! I’m not saying that CNBC needs to have a huge panic attack, but it would be nice if they treated the topic as something more than just idle speculation. However things unfold, we’re talking global impact here.
Of course, it’s likely that many of the underlying forces behind automation are independent of our awareness of them. Even if we have a massive debate on whether robots and AI are really good for the economy, the companies and industries that create those technologies aren’t simply going to stop. Every day we see more examples of automation creeping forward and in arenas few expected (like journalism, which strikes a little close to home for me). They aren’t entering into these industries simply out of curiosity, there are huge profits to be gained for businesses that innovate and adopt automation. Whether you think robots will free us from back-breaking labor or doom us to a jobless economy, the fact remains that the trend is very likely to continue in the future.
[screen capture and video credit: CNBC]