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Technology and Unemployment

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Farming is the quintessential human profession. Before the Industrial Revolution swept the West, the vast majority of the world’s population worked as farmers, and even today one in three people, around 2.3 billion, is employed in agriculture.

Bountiful farms provide the sustenance for life at the efficiency and scale needed to support once unimaginable populations; before people learned to tend and cultivate the earth, the total global human population likely had never exceeded 15 million people, less than the number of people living in Beijing today. Now, this oldest and most perfectly human occupationfarming, not prostitutionis going to the robots.

That is, if the planners of the Japanese Dream Project have their way. The Dream Project is an initiative focused on innovative ways to reclaim land ravaged by the March 2011 tsunami in the Miyagi Prefecture.

On the Dream Project’s experimental farm, rather than farmers wading knee-deep in rice paddies, a cohort of robots will trundle across the terrain, performing every operation. From seed to fruit, robots will prepare, plant, tend and harvest land polluted by oil, salt and radioactive fallout that no human would want to work in. The robots will even infuse it with a little bit of themselves, as they cycle their carbon emissions back into the earth to negate the need for fertilizer.

As with most experiments in advanced technology, the potential for swift and substantial economic and social return on the Dream Project is rather dubious. While an agriculture ministry spokesman stated, “We hope the project will help not only support farmers in the disaster-hit regions but also revive the entire nation’s agriculture,” Japan’s agriculture ministry and various private partners expect to invest around 10 billion yen, or $130 million, to make this a reality on a mere 600-acre parcel of land, an unsustainable level of investment for any serious commercial operation.

It will make little immediate difference to Miyagi Prefecture farmers in the context of the “24,000 hectares of once-fertile farmland damaged by the tsunami.” Yet even if the project fails, the concept of the Dream Project seems an unavoidable future.

It is the inevitable next step in the journey launched when a human first used a stick to dig a hole in the ground, propelled when people first harnessed a plow to a mule, and given wings when the first tractor rumbled to life following the invention of the steam engine. It is the herald of the transformation of farming into a profession ruled by the mechanized.

Of course, farming is hardly the only human industry being transformed by advancing technology. As The New York Times exclaims, “American industries…have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.” Breakthroughs in computing power, connectivity, artificial intelligence, robotics, manufacturing, medicine and more are reshaping industries daily.

Here in the heart of Silicon Valley, confidence abounds that these advances can lead only to the betterment of the human condition. In a time of stubbornly high unemployment, few question the notion that advancing technology spurs job creation.

This is the introductory piece in a multi-part series in The Daily on why that notion is dangerously false. The evolution of farming as evinced by the Dream Project is but one demonstration of the arc that professions take as technology transforms them.

Pointing to examples primarily from the U.S. economy, we will discover how we are approaching a time during which most workers will just no longer be needed. Advancing technology is eliminating and exporting jobs faster than it is creating them, as well as pushing those that do exist out of the reach of the average citizen, which will lead to an unprecedented sustained rapid decline in job opportunities that will strain social and economic institutions.

Our current pace of technological change is one that today’s economic, regulatory and societal structures are ill equipped to handle. Technology-related unemployment cannot continue to be ignored. As one commenter sardonically lamented in a since-deleted comment on a YouTube video demonstrating industrial robotics, “And now the most spoken sentence in the 21st century will [be]: ‘I lost my job.’”

 

Contact Rahul Gupta at rahulgi@stanford.edu.