What the future of automation holds for modern-day Luddites

November 3, 20174 Minute Read

The future of automation is advancing every day, as Uber tinkers with its fleet of driverless cars and robots neatly cart Amazon products through the company’s shipping centres. On one hand, it’s exciting to imagine a world enhanced by digital assistants and ambient computing. But on the other, automation’s potential impact on employment freaks us out—just a little.

The Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Toronto’s Ryerson University anticipates that artificial intelligence could eliminate as much as 42 percent of Canadian service-sector jobs within the next two decades. How will workers respond to changing conditions in this digital version of the Industrial Revolution? Here’s what the Luddite experiences of the 19th century can teach us about what to expect.

The future of automation

We’re witnessing history repeat itself, as it often does. The Luddites were the first group of workers put out by automation, so they struck out against the machines.

Although automation’s impact is and will continue to be global, North American jobs prove uniquely vulnerable, because many of them are located in service-sector industries ripe for automation—like manufacturing, transportation, finance, and food service. Professions like trucking and tax preparation could be eliminated outright. AI may even come to an IT team near you.

Just like in the Industrial Revolution, businesses are beginning to see how they can enable workplace productivity and boost profitability by automating jobs previously held by humans. This will trigger significant job losses, and it might depress wages in certain industries, too. According to Argentus, manufacturing will be hit the hardest: A new study estimates that up to 45 percent of manufacturing and supply chain positions could be automated in the coming years.

How the government, advocates, and industry feel

Although the new administration is in its early days, its public statements regarding automation may not be reassuring to those concerned about the potential impact on employment. The Huffington Post wrote all about how experts have criticized Employment and Social Development Canada for not taking the issue seriously. There are also calls in Canada and abroad to consider instituting a universal basic income, in which all citizens are guaranteed a base-level income, regardless of their employment status.

No matter what you may think of that particular idea, we’re undeniably at an inflection point, where there’s a critical opportunity to prepare the global workforce and economy for the AI-powered future. But if we don’t take meaningful steps soon, the social and economic disruption will be severe.

Modern Luddites’ first step?

At first, the Luddites said they weren’t against tech advancement. They just wanted to share in the profits or secure a common agreement on how workers’ livelihoods would be preserved in the new order. No big deal.

When this failed, they turned to sabotage, attacking and destroying the frames used to weave stockings. But the Luddites ultimately faced legal crackdowns from parliament and even public hangings—which extinguished their rebellion. We argued a lot about this concept of “fair profit” in the 19th century, and the modern-day conversation will only intensify.

Raging against the machine

If employers respond as dismissively to calls for economic fairness as their early 19th-century counterparts did, workers might begin voicing their concerns about the future of automation using more dramatic methods.

It might be harder for them to immediately locate a physical target, though. Weaving frames are long gone; instead, virtual AI workers will silently perform their tasks in the cloud—intangible and out of reach. But that barrier won’t prevent workers from taking out their frustrations on the nearest real-world object representing their economic deprivation, be it a driverless car or a manufacturing floor robot.

We can also expect a massive outpouring of creative public protest via social channels. The Luddites did something similar in their day. Smithsonian Magazine points out that they created the myth of abused apprentice Ned Ludd, writing songs about him and signing humorous letters in his name.

North American workers will leverage their ingenuity and acerbic wit to drive home their point about how the productivity gains of the information age must benefit all, not just a privileged few. If employers aren’t receptive to these appeals, they’ll find themselves shamed in today’s public square: social media.

Adapting to the automated workplace

As this debate rages, some entrepreneurs will adapt on their own. We saw a mid-century example in the movie Hidden Figures, when Dorothy Vaughan saved her team of female computers from NASA layoffs by learning FORTRAN and teaching it to them.

Contemporary citizens can capitalize on the coming tech transformation to establish professional fields that never existed before. A raft of new job categories emerged several decades after the Luddites’ struggle, in fact, bringing prosperity to later generations. But a piecemeal approach, in which workers must fend for themselves, won’t be enough in the short term. We could still be setting the stage for an unruly period during which people who feel they’ve been left behind begin to fight back.

The automated future and its impacts aren’t yet fully understood. But once workers see how they’ll be affected, they’ll demand a meaningful conversation. The topic at hand? How to make sure technology advancements give everyone cause to celebrate—not just those at the top.

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