Broadly speaking, this is a positive development for workers. Technology makes them safer, smarter, and faster. Aided by telematics, UPS drivers on average get into less than one accident per million miles driven. In China, Foxconn employees working alongside bots and precision equipment have delivered billions of high-quality electronic devices to Apple and other customers.
Yet although most workers I encountered expressed positive sentiments about the new technologies, many prominent academics, analysts, and economists are worried sick about the new machine age. Two Oxford University researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, concluded “about 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk” due to automation. At the 2014 Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, Gartner projected “one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots, and smart machines by 2025.” As politicians amplify the fears that robots will soon steal all our jobs, the sense of gloom is palpable. And radical new societal solutions are being considered. Switzerland held a referendum in 2016 on whether citizens should be guaranteed minimum incomes, irrespective of work status, partially in anticipation of future job loss. (It failed.)
But there’s a case to be made that these fears are misplaced. A look back at how disruptive technologies have made their way into common use suggests that automation can take its own sweet time in displacing human labor.
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