Thu, May 23, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Will there be any jobs left for humans?

Throughout history, economic upheavals have destroyed whole industries — and created new ones. However, some fear automation may signal the death of mass employment

By Will Hutton  /  The Observer, LONDON

However, the implications for employment are awesome. Thomas Frey, senior futurologist at the DaVinci Institute, lists taxi, bus and truck driving as soon-to-be-extinct occupations — along with traffic police, all forms of home delivery and waste disposal, jobs at gas stations, car washes and parking lots. The cars themselves will be made by robots in automated car factories. The only new jobs will be in the design and marketing of the cars, and in writing the computer software that will allow them to navigate their journeys, along with the apps for our mobile phones that will help us to use them better.

Lawrence Summers, an economist and former US secretary of the treasury, thinks that the challenge of the decades ahead is not debt or competition from China but the dramatic transformations that technology is bringing about. Summers believes that the transition to the automated economy that robotization implies has only just begun. The invention of 3D printing, in which every home or office will be equipped with an in-house printer that can spew out the goods we want — from shoes to pills — anticipates a world of what Summers calls automated “doers.” They will do everything for us, eliminating the need for much work. The only jobs will be in writing the software and building the “doers,” creating a bifurcation of the labor market that is already discernible.

At least Summers sees some underlying economic dynamism. For techno-pessimists such as economist Tyler Cowen the future is even darker. It is not only that automation and robotization are coming, but that there are no new worthwhile transformational technologies for them to automate. All the obvious human needs — to move, to have power, to communicate — have been solved through cars, planes, mobile phones and computers.

According to Cowen, we have come to the end of the great “general-purpose technologies” (technologies that transform an entire economy, such as the steam engine, electricity, the car and so on) that changed the world. There are no new transformative technologies to carry us forward, while the old activities are being robotized and automated. This is the “Great Stagnation.”

That is a very lopsided view of the future with little recognition of the opportunities. The growth of transformative technologies is not tailing off: As scientific knowledge explodes and crosses new boundaries, they will accelerate. The 21st century will witness more technological and scientific advances than in the last 500 years.

The pace of change is certainly accelerating — business models today already become obsolescent in less than 20 years, and that figure is going to fall further. However, human demands are infinite. Notwithstanding robotization and automation, I identify four broad areas in which there will be vast job opportunities.

The first is in micro-production. There is going to be a huge growth in micro-brewers, micro-bakers, micro-filmmakers, micro-energy producers, micro-tailors, micro-software houses and so on who will deploy the Internet and micro-production techniques to produce goods at prices as if they were mass-produced, but customized for individual tastes.

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