(Originally published on Forbes)
Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence aren’t the enemy of jobs after all. New technologies actually end up creating different, higher-paying jobs than the ones they replace, according to new research.
Fears of “technological unemployment,” a term coined by renowned economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, and recently popularized by MIT Sloan professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, are rampant. The worry is that computer-driven automation will take over repetitive tasks across a swath of industries, from retail and financial services to manufacturing and, maybe sooner than we realize, taxicabs and trucking.
It turns out, however, that new technologies—most notably AI—aren’t harbingers of the so-called robot apocalypse.
“Throughout history, automation commonly creates more, and better-paying, jobs than it destroys,” writes The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip. “The reason: Companies don’t use automation simply to produce the same thing more cheaply. Instead, they find ways to offer entirely new, improved products. As customers flock to these new offerings, companies have to hire more people.”
As an example, Ip cites research by James Bessen, an economist with Boston University School of Law. Retail banks have indeed been able to hire fewer tellers for each of their branch locations since the advent of ATMs in the 1970s, but during that time banks have increased the number of branches they operate by 43%, Bessen found. So banks actually employ more tellers than they did in 1980, and they perform more value-added tasks.
Another tidbit: Bessen found that the number of typesetting and compositor jobs fell by about 100,000 during the 1980s, but from 1979 to 2007 the number of digital designers more than quadrupled, to 800,000, more than making up for the loss many times over.
Apples and Oranges?
Of course, technology movements such as AI and the Internet of Things are a far cry from ATMs, and the pace and scale of this “fourth Industrial Revolution” is a lot greater than any that preceded it. But these technologies won’t necessarily replace people as much as they will replace or enhance existing business processes, notes Shruti Bhat, a senior director of product management working on emerging technologies at Oracle.
It wasn’t so long ago that PCs and email replaced typewriters and the steno pool, raising doubts about whether the older generation in the workforce would be able to adapt. “But everyone is using PCs today and doing stuff with apps on their smartphones,” Bhat says. They are doing so because those technologies were made easy to consume. No one is asking us to program our documents in Cobol, after all, and it turns out that we’re much more productive as a result.
“Humans have always built tools to extend their capabilities,” Bhat says. “Soon, AI will enable us to do more in ways that we haven’t imagined yet.”