Unsigned: Automation Harms the Working Class

     It’s a tale as old as time: since humans began developing automation during the industrial revolution, there has been a sense of creeping anxiety that machines would take over for good, at the expense of humanity. While this used to be a silly fear that was easily consoled, it’s becoming more and more evident that algorithms and automation might not necessarily be harbingers of progress, but rather forces which degrade and disrupt the lives of many Americans.

   As wide scale technology is being implemented in modern times, reducing the need for human computational efforts, many people are losing jobs that involve obsolete skill sets. According to the New York Times, “Executives generally spin [new technology like] these bots as being good for everyone, ‘streamlining operations’ while ‘liberating workers’ from mundane and repetitive tasks. But they are also liberating plenty of people from their jobs” (nytimes.com). Understandably, implementing new technology in these modern times is a gut reaction for most; like children at Christmas, companies want the biggest and best new toys — and the benefit to them is that the executives pocket a sum every time they let another human employee go in favor of a machine. It’s keeping up with the Jones’ to the maximum.

   Yet, just because they can doesn’t mean they should. Machines aren’t immune to human error, but that which seems to be their most substantial selling point is in reality their most dire drawback: they’re simply not human. Every mechanization that replaces a human replaces a human. Calls to the insurance agency and bank and, according to one business trend analyser, even small businesses are met with an evenly-toned pre-recorded voice, some of which don’t even direct a caller to a real-life associate (businessnewsdaily.com). Every day, we draw ever closer to the dystopian future cautious stories foretold, where robots control the everyday occurrences of our lives, and where technology has been so well adapted to human jobs that humans aren’t needed at all.

   Unfortunately, business elites only seem to see the benefits. The dark lens of capitalism restricts those who view the world through it to dealing with only what is in front of them, which is how they can change the current systems to make sure they are maximizing profit and not worrying about the consequences on the world. The nature of capitalism is that it desires efficiency and profitability over everything. Today, this comes at the expense of the employee, rather than the employer.

   Even worse, an MIT study found that robots in the workforce not only take away jobs, but also depress wages for everyone else: “The researchers found that for every robot added per 1,000 workers in the U.S., wages decline by 0.42 percent and the employment-to-population ratio goes down by 0.2 percentage points — to date, this means the loss of about 400,000 jobs. The impact is more sizable within the areas where robots are deployed: adding one more robot in a commuting zone (geographic areas used for economic analysis) reduces employment by six workers in that area” (mitsloan.mit.edu). Clearly, automation has a significant impact on the workforce, and it’s not nearly as positive as business leaders want it to seem.

      While they are by far the most widely impacted, it’s not just the working class being affected by new software initiatives. According to Medium, highly skilled professionals like those in the legal industry are projected to lose their positions to artificial intelligence (AI): “Typical support services in a legal context, have to do with document handling -classification, discovery, summarization, comparison, knowledge extraction, and management [are] tasks where AI agents can do a great job already” (medium.com). The New York Times echoed this sentiment, “As bots become capable of complex decision-making, rather than doing single repetitive tasks, their disruptive potential is growing” (nytimes.com).

   In order for mechanization and AI implementation to be beneficial, there will need to be complex safety net systems in place to catch those who are forced to the wayside and to ensure that human quality of life isn’t degraded, systems that we don’t have right now (medium.com). As technology blasts forward, those in charge of it must be extraordinary careful not to lose sight of the bigger picture: the human story. Technology can be a good thing that assists and heightens the human experience. It also has the ability to do massive harm to everyone who contributes to society. Inevitably, machines will continue to play a more and more important role in our lives as humans, but we can control the degree to which they do so and make sure that we don’t lose our humanity in the process.