Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Automation

Finally, Michigan can sleep easy. The factories are coming back. Ford’s CEO, Mark Fields, has cancelled a $1.6 billion investment in Mexico and is, instead, injecting $700 million into existing operations in the Great Lake State. This “Great Again” outcome is expected to create 700 jobs over the next four years.

Ford says that “changing business conditions” impacted their decision to cancel the Mexico operation, and they’re right. Business conditions are changing. For starters, 3D printers and robots are faster and more precise than even foreign laborers. Not to mention, robots don’t need to feed a family or pay the utility bill. Furthermore, driverless vehicles developed in the U.S. will be able to transport goods across the country in safer and cheaper ways. Ford is but one of the many companies that may soon relocate operations to the U.S. to make use of these lucrative “changing conditions.”

The decisive three – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – may very well get the manufacturing renaissance they hoped for. It’s just that the pro-manufacturing atmosphere they envisioned is also one that is becoming increasingly anti-jobs. Whereas in the 80s, every additional million dollars in manufacturing output would produce an additional 25 jobs, today, that number has shrunk down to six. It’s also a number that’s bound to decrease even further.

Much more than immigrants or free trade agreements, robots will be the ones taking U.S. jobs. However, cuts to employment won’t just be restricted to the manufacturing sector. Researchers at Oxford predict that over the next 20 years, as many as 47 percent of all U.S. jobs could be automated. Last week, I attended a lecture where USC researchers announced their successes building AI that conducts negotiations by exploiting human emotions and employing manipulative techniques to extract concessions out of interlocutors. Sorry, lawyers-in-training.

Displacements in the workforce are happening today, but they’re largely going over our heads. Despite the existential questions these create for the value of human labor and the future of the social contract, the role of technology wasn’t a decisive issue in this election. In fact, it was barely even mentioned.

Technology policy exists in an ideological blind spot. Most people, including politicians, have few opinions or ideas on the matter. If they do, they’re generally skeptical of forthcoming changes. A recent Pew Research Study managed to show that a majority of Americans would be weirded out by humanoid robots replacing primary caretakers in hospitals or retirement homes, and half of all Americans would never get into a driverless car. Whatever thinking does exist is carried out either by ivory tower think tanks or fanciful Silicon Valley enthusiasts. Though they make for interesting reading, these ideas exclude the perspectives of the people that will be most affected by these changes. Predictably, technological engagement closely follows educational background. Of Americans who didn’t graduate high school, only 68 percent use the Internet. Looming is a crisis of serious disenfranchisement as the demographic groups that are least consulted on these changes will be the ones most impacted by them.

For the time being, voters are reluctant to bring up the question, and politicians aren’t given a motive to initiate the dialogue. Parties don’t know who thinks what or who they’re fighting against. Technology’s role in our society is the most important issue for U.S. domestic policy, and it’s being swept under the rug.

The lack of concrete positions and talking points on the matter, is, on the other hand, somehow refreshing. In a political landscape of intense polarization, where perspectives on any issue fall in only one of two camps, technology is the sole arena untarnished by entrenched divisions. And in some ways, that’s what makes it so promising.

If framed properly, an open debate about the future of technological change can become common ground for fruitful, intellectual discussion and new political allegiances. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg announced a cross-country tour to speak with local citizens about the impacts of technology on their lives. Though this is indicative of how poorly studied the issue is, it’s nonetheless an excellent first step that other industry executives ought to mimic.

Distracting ourselves with short-term victories and ignoring the long term problems can only go on for so long. The Ford plant’s 700 additional jobs are surely a positive for residents of Flat Rock, Michigan, but they’re barely a dent in restoring the 6.4 million – or one-third – of all manufacturing jobs lost since the 1980s. In all likelihood, Trump’s administration will indeed witness great increases in domestic production, the return of factories and continued American success in pushing forward the technological frontier.

The jobs will come back – they just won’t go to humans.

 

Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.