Periods of automation bring disruption and hurt workers’ wages. Perhaps Silicon Valley should pick up the compensation bill for the next one
The problem with the future is that it’s unknowable. But of course that doesn’t stop us trying to second-guess it. At the moment, many people – and not just in the tech industry – are wondering about the impact of automation on employment. And not just blue-collar employment – the kind of jobs that were eliminated in the early phase of automating car production, for instance – but also the white-collar jobs that hitherto seemed secure.
In a much-cited 2013 study, for example, economists David Autor of MIT and David Dorn of Spain’s CEMFI institute found that because computers could now be substituted for low-skill workers performing routine tasks (book-keeping, clerical work and repetitive production and monitoring activities) we were going to see a “hollowing-out” of middle-skilled, middle-wage jobs and “a corresponding rise in employment at both the high and low ends of the skills spectrum”. And in a 2015 study, two Oxford researchers, Carl Frey and Mike Osborne, took the 702 categories that the US labour department uses to classify jobs and tried to estimate which of them might be vulnerable to automation using the “smart” technologies that are now commonplace. Their conclusion: almost half (47%).
Waves of automation have always involved periods of traumatic disruption