Automation & The Future of the American Worker

At the end of his recent blog post, The Internet of Things and Data Center Automation, my colleague Jeff Hughes wrote, “Google is getting humans out of the driver’s seat. We’re getting humans out of the data center.” That statement begs the question: When automation eliminates jobs that humans used to do, are we doomed to the unemployment line?

The answer to that question is a resounding, “No.”

First, a couple of examples, and then a caveat.

Example #1: In 1900, 41 percent of Americans worked in agriculture; by 2000, only 2 percent did.[1] Yet over those hundred years, employment, productivity, and personal income all rose dramatically. Fewer Americans work on the farm, but by all measures American workers – and the economy in general – are faring better. Since 1900, millions of farmers have been replaced by machines – from the tractor to the harvester. But millions of new jobs have been created – ranging from engineers to design those machines to scientists to increase crop yield.

Example #2: In recent discussions about how “robots are dooming human workers to the unemployment line,” many people have cited the example of tax preparation software (think TurboTax, though there are others as well). In one article, the author points out that the person who created the computer program to automate tax preparation probably earned billions of dollars, but also “eliminated the need for countless accountants.”

That’s actually not true. Between 1993 and 2003, the percentage of Americans using tax preparation software tripled (from 8 percent to 25 percent). At the same time, the share of filers using paid preparers also rose, from 51 percent to 62 percent, according to an IRS report.

Displacement vs. replacement

From drivers to data center managers, certainly there are jobs that will be eliminated by automation. So people employed in those jobs today will have to retool themselves to work in new jobs. But those new jobs will be higher paying, and those workers will be more productive. They’ll have more disposable income to buy more goods and services, which will grow the economy and in turn create more jobs.

Joe Kochan, chief operating officer for U.S. Ignite, a company developing gigabit-ready digital experiences and applications, explains the phenomenon: “The design, programming, and creation of these devices and robots will still require, in 2025, more effort than they replace. These robots will, however, change the kind of work people do – robots will replace service and manufacturing jobs, but will open up more possibilities in tech and development.”

The underlying assumption is that workers will be able to retool. Perhaps that is more difficult to do today than it was in the 20th century. It might well be a painful process. But to use that as a reason not to progress is to accept the argument made by English textile artisans who smashed newly developed power looms that threatened their livelihoods – and no one argues that we’d be better off had the Luddites won that battle.

With technology advancing at an ever-more rapid pace maybe progress is more painful now. “In a nutshell, what we’re facing isn’t your grandfather’s unemployment problem.” So our grandfather’s solution – off the farm and into the factory (with maybe a layover at war) – won’t work. But there is some solution that will. I, for one, believe in the power of the human intellect – to rise to new challenges and soar to higher heights.

So in thinking about “getting humans out of the data center” I imagine that people who now spend their days walking around the data center with a clipboard will move into jobs like software development and big data analytics (to make the data center smarter) and automation engineering (to make the data center more efficient). Honestly, don’t those sound like better jobs, anyway?

[1] MIT Technology Review, “How Technology Is Destroying Jobs,” 12 Jun 2013.