[Column] Could Advancing Robotics and Automation Bring on an Unemployment Crisis in Korea?

Posted on : 2013-03-10 08:25 KST Modified on : 2013-03-10 08:25 KST

By Martin Ford

Korea is poised to become a leader in the robotics industry and major corporations like Samsung are investing heavily in the field. The government is even planning a “Robot Land” theme park in Incheon. But what are the long-term implications of these robots?

Computers and robots are increasingly sophisticated and the range of their applications is expanding rapidly. If this trend continues, more workers are certain to be displaced in the near future, including some workers who never thought their jobs could be automated. The evolution of information technology today is unprecedented in the mechanical innovations of the past. Because a large percentage of jobs are, on some level, essentially routine and repetitive in nature, most jobs can be broken down into a discrete set of tasks that are repeated on a regular basis.

Even in low-wage China, Foxconn has announced the introduction of millions of new robots in its electronics assembly factories. The implication is that robots can simply carry out tasks with a consistency and over a length of time that humans simply cannot match.

As hardware and software advances, a large fraction of jobs are ultimately going to be open to robotic or software automation. The next generation of machine learning technology has the potential to duplicate rather complex routines and do them better than humans who are easily distracted.

We are not talking about dreamy science fiction, but rather a simple extrapolation based on anticipated advancements in the expert systems and specialized algorithms that can currently land jet airplanes, trade autonomously on Wall Street, or beat nearly any human being at a game of chess. IBM's Watson – the computer that prevailed at Jeopardy! – suggests that a machine basing its learning on algorithms may soon be capable of taking a number of more complex cognitive tasks. Even highly skilled professionals like lawyers are already losing jobs to specialized algorithms that can analyze legal documents. Some experts also predict that medical doctors will soon face completion from powerful automated diagnostic systems and perhaps even robotic surgical technology.

One of the most extreme historical examples of technologically induced job losses is, of course, the mechanization of agriculture. In the late 1800s, about three quarters of workers in the U.S. were employed in agriculture. Today, the number is around 2-3%. Advancing technology irreversibly eliminated millions of jobs, causing catastrophic unemployment in the short and medium terms. But this time there may not be any new field into which the unemployed can possibility move. As automation transforms all sectors of work, there will come a “tipping point,” beyond which the overall economy can no longer continue to absorb workers who lose their jobs due to automation (or migration of jobs to lower wage countries). Businesses will be able to ramp up production primarily by employing machines and software – and the unemployment problem will decouple from economic factors and radically decline as part of a fundamental restructuring of the mode of production.

The situation will likely be even worse in countries like Korea that also face the demographic crisis of a superannuated population. As an unprecedented proportion of the population reach an advanced age their spending drops and what consumption does take place is skewed heavily toward healthcare. That will make it even more difficult to sustain the consumer spending that powers economic growth.

We must first come to terms with the immensity of the challenge from automation and start a frank discussion about possible solutions. Exponential development of IT technology means an increasingly jobless economy wherein machines and computers will do more and more of the work. If wait until the evidence becomes incontrovertible, it will be very late in the game.

Martin Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm and the author of the book The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. He has over 25 years experience in the fields of computer design and software development.

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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