Automation’s Effects on Employment and Well-Being

Academics and venture capitalists recently came together in New York City to discuss how automation will affect employment.

Earlier this month, the Charles Koch Institute, along with the Adam Smith Society and the Lincoln Network, brought together professors and venture capitalists for a discussion on the evolving nature of work and the challenges and opportunities created by automation.

The event, “Innovation, Automation, and the Future of Work,” began with moderator Garrett Johnson from Lincoln asking the panelist for their general views on how serious of a threat they believed automation posed to the job market. Citing the supercomputer Watson and its new task of assisting oncologists, Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, posited that white-collar workers who had benefited from automation in the past (e.g., accountants) would be threatened by emerging artificial intelligence that is capable of making judgments that previously required humans.

Robin Hanson, associate professor at George Mason University, and Paul Martino, founder and general partner of Bullpen Capital, agreed that some jobs would be replaced by automation, but they disagreed with Murray about the rate of this replacement and about the jobs that would be in jeopardy

“Most of the actual automation work being done out there today is pretty simple,” stated Hanson, clarifying the difference between the practical application of AI and the “flashy” tech demos pitched to Silicon Valley investors. He later discussed how high-skill, trade-based jobs, such as electrical work, are significantly more difficult to automate than people may expect.

Martino also brought a unique perspective to the conversation because of his experience in Silicon Valley. He shared how professionals at tech companies and venture capital firms are concerned about automation: “The vast majority of my colleagues are extremely pessimistic at this point in time,” he said. “When this [automation] conversation comes up, you see this emotive fear instead of a rational fear.” Martino, who does not share those same fears, is optimistic about the innovations automation could bring, using typesetting as an example of how innovation has expanded opportunities that were previously restricted.

 

By the end of the discussion, the panelists’ optimism was tempered with caution, as they were divided on the timeline of automation and how job markets would react. Innovation and automation have been closely connected throughout history—from the Model T replacing the horse and buggy to online services replacing walk-in travel agencies. And though all jobs won’t be replaced overnight, it is worth assessing both the benefits and challenges an automated future will bring, especially as technological innovation continues to be a crucial component of a free society that increases well-being.

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