As many IT professors do, on the first day of class, I typically ask my students whether technology is a positive or negative social influence. This is a nice way to pull, what are mostly apprehensive, students into a friendly peer debate. I’m never disappointed as the ensuing discussion is always lively, revealing so many class themes and topics: technology concepts and uses, ethical considerations, strategic advantages, etc. Good stuff!
Given this, you can imagine my excitement when I read the following headline in the Wall Street Journal – Holiday Help: People vs. Robots. Oh yeah, it’s on, a good old fashion debate over which is better. I couldn’t be more wrong. The article turned out to be a drab, superficial article about how Amazon still uses people while Crate & Barrel, Gap, Staples, and other are starting to use robots. Before I knew it, I had read the entire article to discover it had absolutely nothing to say.
The article barely touched on critical considerations such as total cost of ownership, ethical considerations, or even an analysis of the respective value propositions. Sure they hinted at these concepts but never delivered any significant analysis.
In fairness to the author, perhaps we have just become too numb to the idea of technology replacing human labor. However, with the holidays in our sights, I’d like to provide an editorial to the WSJ article and stop for a second to consider the human implications of robotic systems replacing warehouse jobs.
Between off-shore labor and technology, our economy is facing unprecedented job stresses, from which we currently find ourselves is a terrible recession. At some point, I think we have to ask ourselves, “Where are jobs going to come from?”
The most common response to this line of debate is that in a “free economy” innovation prevails, creating new industries and generating new jobs. While I recognize some degree of truth to the statement, I feel it is also intellectually dishonest and/or naïve.
This line of reasoning is predicated on an old world “trickle-down” economy. Certainly, some new jobs are created. However, it is definitely not one-to-one for two elemental reasons: 1) modern technology requires a smaller workforce than in the past, and 2) off-shore outsourcing breaks the “trickle-down” model, or at least mitigates it to a significant degree (depending upon the industry). So, how do we fill the void? What do we do?
This is our generation’s greatest conundrum. While I don’t have the answer, I do believe that the process starts by taking some more time to consider the longer-term implications of replacing human labor with technology (and off-shore outsourcing for that matter). Am I suggesting that we don’t do this – absolutely not. I am saying that we need to take a broader economic perspective and do a better job of understanding the true “total cost of ownership” to the overall economy. Unfortunately, I fear it may be too late; the damage may be irreversible.
This is just my opinion. I’d love to hear what you have to say on the topic.