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Will Technology Create An Employment Crisis in Our Society?

Will Technology Create An Employment Crisis in Our Society?
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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Military University

My career in computer technology began in June 1967, when I worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) as a mathematician. That was the only term used then for computer programmer.

Cybersecurity was not a term used at DIA. In those days, cybersecurity meant that you underwent an investigation to determine if you were a loyal U.S. citizen. The fear of Soviet KGB agents working in the Washington, D.C., area added an extra sense of security awareness.

Even then, technology and automation were creating a growing trend toward unemployment, which has not ceased. While our businesses and families have benefited from today’s computer technology and more people are aware of the need for cybersecurity, has the overwhelming use of technology and automation created a crisis in employment?

What Is Automation?

Automation is “the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically.” It can also be defined as “the state of being operated automatically” or an “automatically controlled operation of an apparatus, process, or system by mechanical or electronic devices that take the place of human labor.”

However, automation also means that a task previously performed by humans can now be performed by machines. Consequently, human workers can become unemployed by being fired or retiring. Automation might have been a factor in the recent announcement by General Motors (GM) of the closing of five manufacturing plants that will eliminate about 14,000 jobs.

Besides these 14,000 GM workers, is anyone else in the U.S. experiencing a crisis formed by technology and automation replacing them in the workplace? Yes, we are.

What Robot Jobs Will Replace You or Others?

If GM opens more plants in the future, will all of those former GM workers find jobs? I doubt it due to the automation of many of their skills with robots.

Two years ago, U.S. and Canadian manufacturing companies reported the loss of 5.6 million jobs between 2000 and 2010. TechCrunch reported that about 13% of these jobs went overseas as part of international trade deals, but about 85% of those lost jobs went to what was termed “productivity growth,” another way of saying machines replacing human workers.

A New York Times story told about Zora, a small robot that has changed how elderly residents are cared for in a nursing facility near Paris. This robot is about as tall as a two-year-old and instantly created an emotional attachment with the elderly patients.

For example, residents held Zora’s hands while they walked. They also embraced it like a small child, kissed it on its head, or made cooing or baby sounds as one does with an infant. While this little robot is a long way from being human, Zora is human-like for some patients. That means Zora can replace a human nurse in some capacities, such as being a compassionate listener for hours at a time, but not giving injections.

We Should Be Aware of How Technology Will Affect Our Employment

If we are to survive in the working world, we must acknowledge the impact technology and automation plays in our workplaces. Technology is a permanent part of our lives.

Also, technology and automation are signposts of changes in our employment, in the work we do and in the labor market. We need to start exploring our possibilities as we see how technology is replacing more and more human workers.

The Evolution of Technology in History

Historian George Basalla studied the evolution of technology. He examined such impacts or crises in technology insertion in our employment and our social life in three areas:

  • The diversity of the huge number of technology and automation products that make our lives better
  • The necessity of all this technology that we use to meet our business and daily needs
  • The natural desire for more and better technology

But is all of this automation and technology leading us humans by the nose? Are you going to lose your employment in the near future due to technology and automation?

How Technology Has Entered the Workplace Now 

According to a recent Gartner report, business leaders are planning to replace humans with virtual assistants and cloud-based business intelligence tools.

A BusinessWire report on robotic or self-driving vehicles said “transport companies are extremely optimistic about the timescales for automation – over three quarters (76%) of transport companies expect autonomous trucks to become a viable option within the next decade; of these, 29% believe they will be a reality on our roads in the next five years. Transport companies believe the primary benefit of automation will be boosting productivity (50%), followed by helping to cut costs (19%).”

This report also mentioned that there is concern or confusion regarding autonomous vehicle technology “with transport companies citing the major challenges to adopting technology-driven innovation as cost and investment (71%), followed by a limited understanding of the range of emerging technologies available (50%).”

Similarly, a CNN story on robots and artificial intelligence (AI) replacing retail workers reported: “Between 6 million to 7.5 million existing jobs are at risk of being replaced over the course of the next 10 years by some form of automation….That represents at least 38% of the current retail work force, which consists of 16 million workers. Retail could actually lose a greater proportion of jobs to automation than manufacturing has.”

Artificial Intelligence Is Coming of Age

AI is not just a technology being pursued in the United States. China, Japan and other Asian countries are investing in AI,  and so is Europe. For instance, an Estonian organization, e-estonia, says that “experts at Stenbock House [the seat of the government in Estonia] have started to discuss feasibility and legal frameworks for the application of Artificial Intelligence technologies to everyday life tasks of Estonian citizens.”

Estonia is also starting to explore the use of self-driving buses. The country is looking at smart technology such as refrigerators that help prepare your grocery list by telling you what food items you need. Estonia is also reviewing how AI can be used in legal matters.

As we’ve evolved from data punch cards to storing digital data in an online cloud, some jobs are being lost and others are being created. But many technology-based tasks still require human hands to perform the job. Whether or not an employment crisis is truly brewing remains to be seen.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Military University (AMU). He was the program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics.