deja-vu

It‘s true what they say- we can often make sense of today by looking at history.

Back in 1930 John Maynard Keynes, the pop star of the economics profession for much of the 20thcentury, made a famous prediction in an essay called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”: thanks to technological progress we would work no more than 15 hours a week by now.

Where can I find one of those jobs?!  Sign me up!

More than 100 years before Keynes, the Luddites burned down mechanical looms and mills in England because they feared that the new machines endangered their jobs as textile workers. And they did.

The thing is, though, that what came instead certainly was an improvement over the brutish conditions workers endured before the Industrial Revolution.

What does that have to do with the unmanned and robotics industry?

Well, today you could say there’s a group of neo-Luddites who feed the automation anxiety across the economy.

Study after study claims that over the next few decades millions of jobs will be lost to robots. Jobs in particular danger to be annihilated by technology are those that involve physical labor (i.e. machinists, cooks), or data processing (i.e. payroll clerks).

Let’s ignore for a moment that everyone using their kitchen to prepare things of a higher degree of complexity than boiled eggs will doubt that a robot can navigate that chaos.  (For what it’s worth, a robot would be fine in my kitchen!)

I’m wondering though; why is it that despite many years of autopilots on planes we still have the Captain sitting in the cockpit? We all know it’s not for the sole purpose of unintelligibly assuring us that we are cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet.

“Technology destroys jobs, but not work.”

That´s what an insightful McKinsey study on the future of work says.

And like our dedicated airline pilots, who are in the cockpit for things way more important than status updates, consider some pretty cool research by Uber´s Advanced Technologies Group about the future of trucking. This study, in a nutshell, concludes that self-driving trucks might mean morejobs for truckers, not less.

How can that be? In short, the story goes like this: on closer inspection, it turns out that (not surprisingly!) a trucker does many more things than just holding the wheel while driving from point A to point B.

There are parts of the truck that need checking. Simple repairs like changing a tire can be carried out by the driver, even in the middle of the Mojave Desert. In inner-city traffic maneuvering often involves rather complex communication and decision-making processes that are anything but standardized.

This points to one of the main problems with predictions about the future of work and automation. Exactly what jobs are being replaced? In the case of trucking, the part of driving a straight, monotonous line for 1,000 miles might be taken over by a robot.

But that does not mean you can get rid of the driver. He or she instead will use their time for activities that add more value such as planning and logistics, dealing with freight papers or possibly taking a nap in the back so he or she is fully alert when taking over the wheel through the city.

Bottom line according to the Uber people is:

“The deployment of self-driving trucks improves efficiency on long-haul routes, lowering the overall cost of trucking and reducing the total cost of the goods being shipped. When goods are cheaper, consumers buy more of them. And when consumers buy more, more new goods need to be shipped than before, which drives truck freight volume up.”

There you have it. And things in other fields of work will be similar. Like I said above, we still have pilots on every flight. Medical robots did not replace doctors. And don´t count on a robot whipping up a mean Saltimbocca anytime soon…

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