Humans need not apply: the Robot revolution

This quarter I am teaching an online class on Digital Globalization, and this week we are talking about the economy: Uber, AirBnB, 3-D printers, etc. The discussion has focused a great deal on how the sharing economy has impacted students’ communities, particularly AirBnB’s impact on housing. In general, most students are optimistic about the future of the sharing economy, and don’t want government to heavily regulate emerging technologies. Still, the students do have some particular concerns. One student recommended a video called Humans need not apply, which talks about how robots are impacting the labor market. This 15 minute video concisely and thoughtfully details the danger robotics and technology pose for white collar employment. As the video points out, even the Stock Market is now heavily run by “bots.” The action of the market is now largely out of direct human control. Now other markets -in particular the legal industry- are changing, as discovery and other tasks are being automated. Could bots eventually take over the role of doctors for diagnosis or drug prescription? My favorite point in the video (spoiler alert) is when the speaker points out that the background music for the video was created by a robot. Overall, the video is deeply pessimistic, as its key argument is that new jobs will not replace those that are lost. My question is, if this trend is truly happening, why is unemployment in the United States currently around 5%? Shouldn’t we already see some signs of this happening? One of the commentators of the video was struck by how thoughtful the comments were, and asked if this could possibly be Youtube? I think that this comment speaks to the video’s strengths.

Another student in the class pointed to an article in the Atlantic titled “A world without work.” It’s also worth your time, to think about the long term trends that may be at least as important as recent news about the Chinese stock market.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

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