Robots are taking away human jobs. Or are they?

A few weeks ago, world’s richest man Bill Gates in an interview proposed that robots that take away human jobs should pay taxes as a way to at least temporarily halt the spread of automation and fund other types of employment.

Of course, I found that idea crazy and ridiculous, especially as it was coming from someone who made his fortune in technology. When I shared the article on my Facebook page with my comment, a debate ensued which pitted me against others who felt that Gates was right else robots will take away all human jobs.

My sentiments were perfectly captured in this response by Larry Summers, a professor and former US Treasury Secretary. Once again, a debate like the previous one took place when I shared it on Facebook.

It is safe to say that people are terrified of robots and the belief that they will make humans redundant.

This reminds me of Business Studies class in my JSS 3 where under disadvantages of computers, we were taught that computers take away jobs from people, increasing unemployment.

In many ways, this is true: technology and automation has reduced or even eliminated the need for humans in many jobs. As a matter of fact, this is the point many have been trying to bring to the attention of US President Donald Trump who believes that it is countries like China and Mexico that have cost his country manufacturing jobs.

However, this is only one side of the argument. With every advance in technology, mankind has been saved time and money, and also created immense value. Today, we can’t, for example, imagine our lives without email messaging or ATM machines even if these two have reduced the need for more postmen and bank cashiers.

Processes that can be broken down to sets of repetitive tasks are easy to be performed by technology. While this replaces the need for humans to perform those roles, it frees them up to do higher-level work – work that cannot be automated, at least, at that time. Sadly, the people who do the higher-level work are rarely those made redundant by technology. This is one of the reasons that despite the Obama era created 11.3 million jobs, reducing the unemployment rate from 10% when he came to office to 4.7% at the end of last year, the Rust Belt states which were once the manufacturing heartland of the United States did not feel it as the job losses from manufacturing of decades continued. As a matter of fact, the promise of Trump to bring back those manufacturing jobs was instrumental to his winning many of the states in the Belt.

All these make the battle against robots by taxing them or the companies that use them seem like a noble fight – except that it is a misplaced one. After all, robots are but only one part of automation and technology. Yes, robots are exciting and somewhat intimidating being that they are machines made to mimic humans but I will wager that robots in use are still a very small percentage of the technology that business and people use.

So let us imagine that a robot tax is now in place, and it is now serving its intended purpose of discouraging companies from using it. That does not mean that it will stop automation or the relentless march of technology with all the attendant effects. Banks, for instance, might not be moving robots but employ technology heavily in their operations from banking apps, internet banking and ATM machines. These have definitely reduced their need for human labour.

Of course, it does not make the slightest sense to tax the use of every technology unless we want to return to the prehistoric age before even stones were used to make tasks easier.

Also, the belief that robots will take all or even the bulk of human jobs is an overreaction. Inasmuch as artificial intelligence has advanced and continues to advance, humans will continue to have the upper hand over machine as tasks like creativity and forming relationships which are necessary for work will always be beyond them.

Not only that, on an almost daily basis, we continue to create jobs that did not use to exist before, and many of them high-paying ones. For example, web developers did not exist 25 years ago neither did social media marketers in 2002. As we continue to advance with technology, we will keep creating these new jobs.

But then, what happens to those whose jobs have been disrupted by technology? Like Larry Summers said, more education and retraining is the best way to get them to find new jobs. And yes, this can work as there are always fields for which labour is short and the training period is not long. For example, despite the fact that programming is one of the hottest careers at the moment, there is still a shortage of programmers – a demand that this company is exploiting by retraining coal miners into coders.

Such a scheme can also be done on a larger scale by a city or state, such as the Colleges to Careers program launched by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel by refocusing the city’s seven city colleges on two-year training programs towards fields where they will be demand all the way to 2020. The beauty of the program is that the colleges will partner with local companies who design the curriculum, train the students and ultimately hire them.

Governments will be better off putting money into retraining programs that will provide employment to people who have been put out of work from technological advancement than taxing robots or trying to stop automation. The effort they will put into that will be better served if they directed it to ensuring companies and individuals paid their fair share of taxes and closed tax loopholes such as corporate inversion or using offshore tax havens.

There is no battle between man and machine over jobs here. We will always win.

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