“They Terk Urr Jurrbs!”: Automation Changing Employment

For those who are not familiar with meme culture or are avid viewers of the long-running Comedy Central show, “South Park”, the title of this article is a call-back to an episode in which the residents of the titular town express outrage in losing their jobs to immigrants–from the future year of 3045–who travels to the present to find employment. These “time immigrants” are willing to work for lower wages than their present-time counterparts. They then send money back to their families–in the future. As absurd as this plot sounds, the story’s overarching theme reflects timeless anxiety that resides in the American psyche: job security. Anxiety that bleeds well into today’s world of automation.

US History with Job Loss Anxiety

Job loss and labor replacement are not anything new to Americans. Since this country’s inception, companies have been looking for ways to increase profit for the lowest cost possible. As any entrepreneur can testify, one of the biggest costs for business operations is labor. If the past reveals anything about our history with labor, it will show that it has been….tedious….at best. Since the abolishment of slavery, affordable labor has always been an objective for many business ventures. Often this manifested itself by companies hiring various immigrant groups and having them work for low wages, then firing them in favor of another immigrant group willing to work for less.

Of course as one would imagine this created great anxiety among an already struggling socioeconomic group, which led to numerous conflicts between different immigrant groups over labor issues. One example of such is the treatment of Chinese immigrants during the 1800s. Not only did these migrant workers deal with laws that targeted Chinese people such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Often Irish workers, frustrated with being replaced, would lash out and attack these migrants from China.

This also doesn’t consider that this was also taking place while the US was going through its Industrial Revolution and the mass migration of people leaving farms and moving to urban areas only to have to compete for jobs amongst each other. These events all happening simultaneously, stand to highlight the underlying fear of job insecurity and foreshadowed what was to come.

An Early Era Warning of Automation

During the 1930s, British economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted rapid technological progress within 90 years. Industrialized countries were openly embracing technology as a way of job growth for many. Keynes, however, warned of what he referred to as “technological unemployment”. Rather than the optimistic outlook that technology would expand job growth, it would instead shrink the number of available jobs for employees. Keynes went as far as to refer to technological unemployment as a “disease” that would be afflicting the world. Now almost a century later, Keynes’s predictions appear eerily true.

Automation and the 1950s

Despite the ideal iconography that the 1950s invokes for a number of people, the decade had its own brand of challenges. The mid-50s found itself in what would be described as the worst “economic slump since the Great Depression”. Companies like Caterpillar and General Motors were laying off employees by the thousands as they made deeper investments in automation. In a 1958 article, The Nation described America’s transition towards automation as: “stumbling blindly into the automation era with no concept or plan to reconcile the need of workers for income and the need of business for cost-cutting and worker-displacing innovations.”

The AI Age of Automation

The 1980s saw another leap in the world of automation with the introduction of AI technology. The developments in artificial intelligence meant that machines now could work autonomously to an extent without the need for a human controller. This changed the game across multiple industries because now this meant that (at least in certain aspects) where an operator would need to stop, the machine would not have to. This also changed the game in regard to the tradition of employment equilibrium. In the early days changing the workforce simply meant trading out one group of employees for another. Also, in previous decades, despite machines becoming more prominent and replacing the jobs of employees in labor. By in large they still required human operators to make them function. Essentially, while they replaced jobs held by humans, they in turn created jobs to be filled by people as well.

Artificial Intelligence removed the need for humans to be manually manipulating the process, to an extent becoming its own operator. Also, despite these new AI machines still requiring an operator, the expertise of an operator needed became much higher. AI specialization meant a narrowing in jobs available to lesser-skilled employees.

Automation’s Full Throttling During the Pandemic

For the majority of people around the world, the Covid 19 pandemic has been an unprecedented event unlike any other. In less than a month, millions of people lost their jobs, and businesses across various industries were forced to shut down. With unemployment at its highest since the Great Depression, remaining businesses had to find ways to adapt their daily operations to this new global situation. Companies started looking toward automation as a way to fill the employment gap. Restaurants replaced their cashiers with self-service kiosks. With the mandates of social distancing, grocery stores leaned into curbside-service apps, with some even using robots to run items out to customers. This switch to automation goes beyond the scope of the service industry. Hospitality, manufacturing, and healthcare have all switched to implementing automation in positions that were once held by human employees.

While it is easy to presume that the pandemic is the leading cause of this wave of unemployment, one New York Times article writes that upwards of 300 global companies had already projected to replace their staff with automation up to 43 percent. This means that this shift towards automating labor was expected to happen, but the pandemic just expedited the process.

An AI algorithm automates taking drive thru orders.


Automation vs The Human Condition

While it may seem that automation is on the verge of outmoding all the jobs held by people, the element of the human experience is our biggest pushback against this future. People want to be able to walk into their local coffee shop and converse with their baristas. How many of us try to impatiently dial through an automated call just to speak to a customer representative? Despite statistics showing that automated vehicles have a lower rate of driver error than people, federal and state laws are being written to restrict automated driving. This is because while yes, machines make more calculative driving decisions. The ability of these machines to adapt and make human-valued decisions are practically non-existent. Not to mention the question of liability should something occur.

The 2003 film, IRobot, portrays a((n)albeit extreme) version of this dilemma. Will Smith’s character, Del, gets into a life-threatening car accident that also involves a 12-yr-old girl. The robot on the scene makes a calculated decision to save Del instead of the child concluding that Del’s chance of survivability was higher. In short, the machine isn’t capable of complying with our human values. Hopefully, it is our value of the human experience that will continue to stem back the push toward automation, and in turn, help alleviate much of the job anxieties that many have.

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