Undoubtedly, when you have recently gone to a supermarket, you have seen one of the new self-checkout machines that allow you to scan and bag your own groceries, instead of relying on costly and error-prone humans. The incentive for supermarkets to use self-checkout machines is obvious – they are cheaper to maintain than employees for doing the same work. The economics behind what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter coined creative destruction is rather simple: Businesses that utilise more efficient means of production make greater profits and require fewer jobs, so upgrading to something like a self-checkout makes supermarkets richer while at the same time destroying pre-existing jobs.
This kind of thing has been happening for centuries, since the first factories, and has almost always been shown to be economically advantageous in the long-term. One of the most famous examples of this is the Luddites, textile artisans who protested against inventions like the stocking frames, spinning frames and power loom that threatened their livelihood. These machines enabled cheaper production with less-skilled, lower-wage workers, and from our modern perspective were hugely influential in developing the consumption-based society we have today. However, many people are opposed to the loss of jobs that self-checkouts can cause, or disconcerted by the obvious presence of a computer where a human job previously existed. For these people, their smartphone, laptop or computer are distinctly different from the self-checkout. However, they are all technologies that have replaced less efficient means of production as technology itself has increasingly great effects on our personal and working lives.
Most computer scientists would agree that self-checkouts are merely a stepping stone in the process of automation, and that perhaps in the future most of the jobs that people will do today will be replaced by robot counterparts. Google’s driverless car is another example of a new technology, but with a greater potential impact on society as a whole in reducing road fatalities, traffic congestion, parking spaces and greenhouse gas emissions simply by removing humans from the equation. Our relationship with machines is only going to become closer and closer in the future, yet perhaps the idea of leaving the steering to an independent entity is disconcerting. The potential for robots to entirely replace the taxi and truck-driving sectors is terrifying for taxi drivers and truck drivers everywhere, but a pleasant notion for owners and CEOs of these businesses.
Not even creative professions are safe from the influence of mechanisation, as C.G.P. Grey points out in his 15-minute YouTube documentary, Humans Need Not Apply. The creative potential of the human mind is one of the most foundational aspects of the human condition, yet even now there exists a robot that can create and compose music, as can be heard in the background of the video. Modern computer science is still far from being able to write articles on an internet blog, but perhaps even one day machines will be able to write a basic draft that people will then edit. Recently on Freakonomics Radio, John Komlos, a retired professor from the University of Munich and author of “Has Creative Destruction Become More Destructive?” answers his own question with a confident ‘yes’ – creative destruction has the potential to destroy millions of jobs. Grey claims that up to 45% of the workforce could be replaced by robots, an almost overwhelming figure. He comes to the conclusion that we, as a society, will simply have to adjust to higher levels of unemployment, and that there is very little that we can do to prevent robots from replacing humans in the global economy.
However, if we take a step back and look at the broader picture of technology’s role in human affairs, we see that while technology has the potential to destroy jobs, is also has the potential to create them. It is often said to high school students that they will probably have a job that did not exist 50 years ago. It is not unlikely that we will adjust in response to the threat of computers and find brand new jobs with technology that never existed before. Our increasing use of smartphones and social networking is merely a symptom of the way in which technology is changing how we work and think as a society. Whether or not that is a good thing is a different topic entirely – there are both pros and cons to the spread of computers into different aspects of our life. Hopefully, our future is not one where humans have been almost fully replaced by robots, as seen in the xkcd comic below. However, we cannot be certain of how and in what ways we will change to accommodate new technologies, or what new directions computer science and other fields of innovation will take us.
As Albert Einstein said, “When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.” If predicting natural phenomena a few weeks in advance is still so challenging for modern science, understanding what our future will hold in terms of technological developments is even further outside our realm of understanding. We can only dream big and hope that if our future turns out like a science fiction novel, it is a utopia, and not a dystopia.