Mechanical mayhem or a move in the right direction?

Mechanical mayhem or a move in the right direction?

It would seem that mechanisation is the new norm for many jobs … but what influence does it have on the quality of how these tasks are done and the lives of those who used to perform these functions?

As Stefanie Knoll and John Wihbey, writers on Journalist’s Resource (named one of the best free reference websites by the American Library Association in 2013), explain in their piece: Computerisation, atomisation, crowd-sourcing and the new economics of employment; from the earliest stages of industrialisation, and Ned Ludd’s war on textile machines, humanity’s worries about the future of work have passed in phases.

“Charles Dickens portrayed gritty factory realities, while the 1936 movie Modern Times showed Charlie Chaplin swallowed whole and spat out by a factory machine,” the duo relate. “Science fiction has long been spinning out dystopian scenarios, with robots marginalising, replacing or enslaving humanity.”

Comments aren’t only being made in the world of fiction, however, as important research questions also emerge with each new economic phase. “It should first be said that the subject is complicated, and pessimistic generalisations and oversimplifications are a danger in this area,” the writers warn.

A 2014 paper by David Autor, from the United States-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on machine displacement of human labour, stresses the need for caution. It notes that: “Journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labour and ignore the strong complementarities that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for skilled labour.”

Other economists have begun to explore how a much more automated future may play out. “In a February 2015 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Robots Are Us: Some Economics of Human Replacement, a group of scholars create a model of the future and conclude that the likely scenario is not altogether positive for workers,” the Journalist’s Resource authors point out.

The paper states that the tech-booms will be followed by tech-busts and that a growing dependency of output will form on past software investment.

A January 2014 report, in the Economist magazine, identified a trend in technological innovations: Whereas innovation during times of industrialisation focused on the automation of physical work, innovation today focuses on the automation of brain-work. “This notion implies that innovations in robotics and computing impact different kinds of labour in different ways,” say the Journalist’s Resource writers.

MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee agree that technologies encroach more on some jobs and less on others, thus driving a divergence in labour markets.

“One way to cope with these developments, according to Harvard researcher Richard Murnane and MIT scholar Frank Seth Levy, is to invest in educational programmes that enhance the skills needed in an increasingly computerised world,” Knoll and Wihbey conclude.

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