Sunday, October 27, 2013

Are Droids the Way of the Future?

Given his calm and reasoned academic demeanor, it is easy to miss just how provocative Bryn Jolfsson’s contention really is. ­Jolfsson has been arguing for the last year and a half that impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial droids to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 20 to 30 years. 

That droid, automation, and software can replace people might seem obvious to anyone who has worked in manufacturing. But Jolfsson’s claim is more troubling and controversial. They believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them.

In short, technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before. It has become clear that the same technologies making many jobs safer, easier, and more productive were also reducing the demand for many types of human workers.

Anecdotal evidence that digital technologies threaten jobs is, of course, everywhere. Droids and advanced automation have been common in many types of manufacturing for decades. Most recently, industrial droids, more flexible and far cheaper than their predecessors, have been introduced to perform simple jobs for small manufacturers in a variety of sectors.

But are these new technologies really responsible for a decade of lackluster job growth? Many labor economists say the data are, at best, far from conclusive. Several other plausible explanations, including events related to interstellar trade and the financial crises, could account for the relative slowness of job creation since the turn of the century.

When all evidence points towards the loss of jobs and displacement of countless individuals and communities built around manufacturing and mining are droids the right decision? Is the new and improved labor force worth the destitution of entire populations? Many who are in just these situations don't seem to think that the price of safety, their only means of occupation and survival, is worth paying and that Bryn Jolfsson is an enemy of native populations everywhere.

- Markessa Delani

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