Are engineers driving job losses?

Article By : Martin Rowe

Robots can do some things that would be difficult, dangerous or simply impossible for people to do.

Every so often, an article comes along that discusses technology replacing people. Usually, these articles are doomsday stories about how we'll all lose our jobs to robots and apps. The counterargument is that automation increases profits, which companies then invest into making new jobs, though different than those lost. Given the current political climate, I've been thinking about promises made to bring back jobs, but I wonder if that's possible or if automation, self-driving cars and other technologies will only accelerate certain job losses. Even worse, will engineers be blamed for taking away even more manufacturing jobs?

Income stagnation and inequality growth

I started thinking about this a few years ago after reading a 2013 article by David Rotman in Technology Review. "How Technology Is Destroying Jobs" opens by quoting two MIT professors who claim that automation, in the form of robots, has cost industrialised countries manufacturing jobs, citing the automotive industry as an example. According to the article, "They [MIT Prof. Erik Brynjolfsson and Prof. Andrew McAfee] believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States."

Brynjolfsson and McAfee graphically show a divergence between productivity and job growth starting around 2000, just when the web began to take off. The graphic shows productivity increasing but job growth mostly flat.

Rotman, however, cites how technological breakthroughs may force job loss in some areas, but they create jobs in others. It's really a matter of the workforce needing to adjust its skill set. Of course, as with any change, there are some losers. Many of those with outdated skills may never find comparable work. Those people, we have heard, are what fueled this year's election results.

Robots to replace people

Rotman goes on to cite Amazon as an example of using robots instead of people. When you order something that Amazon stocks, you'll likely get the item from a robot made by Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics), which hands the item to a person for packaging. There's still a person delivering the package to you—for now, maybe.

Rotman talks about how automation has created a gap between the few and the many. For example, he cites how software that lets you do your own taxes has replaced many accountants, making the software developers wealthy while putting accountants out of work. The same holds true for web apps and smartphone apps, which have replaced travel agents and ticket sellers. Since Rotman wrote his article, I've seen systems replace tollbooths on major highways and bridges, eliminating the last of the tollbooth workers. The IoT and Industrial IoT will also, I believe, eliminate jobs, but will create others at higher skill levels. Rotman revisits growth in inequality by noting that companies such as Amazon Robotics are hiring engineers.

Robots can do some things that would be difficult, dangerous, or simply impossible for people to do. For example, I've seen how a waterproof robot can be our eyes in dangerous underwater places. There are many other examples.

A more recent article goes a step further than Rotman's by adding artificial intelligence to the mix, which could result in jobs that are more than manual labor being replaced by machines. Automation seems good for the engineers who create it as long as we don't figure out how to design systems to replace us.

The way I see it, even if the U.S. sees an increase in manufacturing, it will be through automation. The jobs needed will require skilled engineers and technicians to develop, install and maintain those automated systems, but that's all. I simply believe that those who think the next U.S. administration will bring back their old jobs are in for a surprise. Those jobs are gone. New ones have been and will be created, but they will require a different level of skill.

Could people who have lost jobs to automation turn their attention to engineers, attacking them as another culprit for the loss of manufacturing and other manual-labor jobs? Could we be next?

First published by EE Times U.S.

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