Opinion: How to be proactive about the automation of jobs

Posted on Sep 5 2017 - 8:00am by Daniel Payne

Young people have to be responsible for their collective future. Perhaps that’s why we hear so much about climate change, healthcare and countless other issues that will impact our world for years to come.

There is one imminent issue that no one seems to be talking about enough, though: the automation of our future jobs.

Automation has become increasingly common in our economy, though using machines instead of employees is nothing new. It is only recently that our technological growth has become exponential, posing greater threats to more jobs in less time. Tesla is a great example of this trend: A small car company takes the world by storm and starts creating cars and trucks that can drive themselves in a matter of a few short years.

Self-driving cars could be safer and more efficient, and they would also “work” for free. Companies would rapidly move to the cheaper, safer option; the free market’s invisible hand will make a predictable choice. With this choice, millions of jobs could be eliminated in a relatively short period of time.

What does that mean for the average college student? Deciding to follow a career path that is not immediately threatened with being automated. The paths that are least likely to be replaced soon involve more creative, complex day-to-day tasks. Artists, writers and engineers are thought to be safe choices for employment.

Even these lines, though, are blurring. Artificial intelligence is now able to create original art, such as paintings, or compose new music inspired by that of Bach. It seems that even the most creative tasks are at risk of automation.

Robots’ and computers’ ability to perform all human tasks could lead to two starkly different outcomes.

The first of these outcomes is what many fear when they hear of automation: massive waves of unemployment and economic hardship. The ability of companies to remove large quantities of workers from the payroll, yet charge the same amount for their products and services, should concern us. An economy in which robots do most of the work is unsustainable as it is today. The few creative fields left would become oversaturated, and distressed masses would struggle to survive in a nearly employment-free economy.

The second of these outcomes is significantly more hopeful. With robots and computers to do all the difficult work for free, humans could be free to do the work they wanted and nothing more. This, of course, would require a fundamental restructuring of the way our economy functions. Companies would have to learn to charge less for more, and the greater good would have to become the driving force of the economy, not the profit motive.

In short, the economy would have to work for people instead of people working for the economy.

Though this may seem like a distant fantasy of the future, its approach seems more imminent with every advance in technology. Perhaps our generation will be the one to reimagine the goals and purpose of a future economy.

Daniel Payne is a sophomore integrated marketing communications major from Collierville, Tennessee.