Two scholars at Oxford University have made an exhaustive study of 702 U.S. occupations and new techniques in automation. They concluded that 47 percent of existing jobs are at high risk of being automated in the next decade or so.
The authors, Carl Benedikt Fey and Michael Osborne, studied machine learning (ML) and mobile robotics (MR), the latest developments in automation that have enabled robots to handle complex, nonroutine tasks. The study, entitled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization?” showed trends flowing from what has already been done to jobs in order to project present and future possibilities. (Oxford Martin School, Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology)
One example of ML is diagnosis of cancer at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City made by Watson, the IBM computer that famously beat the two best players on the television show “Jeopardy” and two chess grandmasters.
The computer is able to read through 600,000 pages of medical evidence, 1.5 million pages of patient records and 2 million pages of text from medical journals. It can compare each patient’s symptoms, medical history, genetics, etc., to diagnose and develop a precise treatment plan with the highest possibility of success. The possibility for this type of ML to destroy knowledge workers’ jobs is obvious. According to the study, 140 million knowledge jobs worldwide could be automated out of existence.
Advances in the field of MR are reflected in such developments as a General Electric robot that can climb and repair wind turbines or Google’s driverless cars, which can deal with heavy traffic situations and cross-country trips alike without having an accident. This is due to advanced sensors, on-board computers and GPS-guided navigation. The cars can ”see” from behind, on the sides and in front simultaneously and make the proper driving adjustments in a way no human driver can.
Of course, this type of MR can also automate forklifts, agricultural equipment and an endless number of complex manual jobs. Transport, driving, loading and jobs of all types are potentially endangered in large numbers by increasingly mobile robots developed for the bosses.
Even low-wage workers are threatened. As the talk of raising the minimum wage began to get widespread coverage, particularly with fast food workers’ demands for a $15-an-hour wage, the automation industry began to develop a hamburger-making machine that grinds the meat, shapes it, cooks it and packages it.
The costs of robots are falling steadily. When the price of a robot drops below the wages paid to workers for about a year or two, then their jobs are endangered. Lower labor costs mean higher profits for the company. That is what has happened steadily over the last three decades. And it is what the capitalists have in store for the foreseeable future.
This is only the smallest sample of what the Oxford study covers. And it is impossible to say for certain how accurate the projections of the authors are. But even if they’re off by a significant margin, the potential dangers for the working class are significant — if they are not studied and dealt with.
Workers, unions, communities need to study threat
What is needed first of all is to take this valuable study out of the realm of academia, break it down and make it accessible to the labor movement and the workers. It should become the basis of broad-ranging discussion among unionists, community leaders, students, teachers and all who are threatened by future technological assaults on jobs and wages.
Of course, the problems of the working class and the unions are great, and millions are dealing with immediate and urgent problems. It is difficult under these circumstances to turn attention to more diffuse and future threats. But if this is ignored and allowed to run its course without the workers’ intervention, it can be extremely dangerous.
The workers and the unions must get control over the introduction of technology and not leave it to the will of the bosses. Any introduction of labor-saving technology must be accompanied by demands to shorten hours without loss in pay, covering as many jobs as possible.
This development must also be accompanied by massive jobs programs to carry out socially needed projects at union pay in order to absorb however many workers are displaced by technology.
This or a similar program must be offered up and discussed among union representatives, shop stewards and rank-and-file committees throughout the labor movement, in conjunction with the communities and the campuses. A network of committees must be established to report attempts by the bosses to carry out technological layoffs, and a rounded program for a fightback must be developed.
Robots could liberate; capitalism is the danger
But it is not robots that endanger jobs. It is capitalism and the bosses that are the threat. That must be clearly understood by the working class.
This study shows more than ever that the amount of labor time necessary for the production of the wealth that society needs to live on is diminishing with each advance in technology. The problem under capitalism and the profit system is that the reduction in necessary labor time results in an increase in unemployment.
What is needed is to use robots and automation to lighten the load of labor and to increase the leisure time of the masses of workers who create all the wealth. But that can only be done once the private-property system — the profit system of capitalism — is destroyed. In the meantime, the working class must get organized to take control of the capitalists’ drive to install job-killing technology.
Fred Goldstein is the author of “Low-Wage Capitalism” and “Capitalism at a Dead End,” which has been translated into Spanish as “El capitalismo en un callejón sin salida.” See web site and blog at lowwagecapitalism.com.