Photo: untitled exhibitions / Flick

The 2016 election illustrates the frustration and desperation of workers who have fallen behind the curve of innovation. Their jobs have become obsolete and their skills are unnecessary in the constantly evolving job market. Modern governments are compelled to recognize the social and economic dynamics of technological change.

Manual and routine labor jobs are threatened by automation. Artificial intelligence (AI) performs the work faster and more accurately. Routine jobs are most vulnerable; but, jobs that require perception, judgment and accuracy are not immune.

Simply put, our technological innovation is outpacing our ability to keep up. This is leading to increasing social frustration and political instability. Businesses have more options. They can import labor, move offshore or automate. The problem is made worse for labor when the government fails to realize the need for assistance and training as an integral requirement to job creation. Good governance protects the social contract between society and the economy.

You might think the one-time “Information Officer” for Goldman Sachs would have some inkling of the evolution of jobs and manufacturing in America. Apparently, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin does not.

In a recent interview with Mike Allen of News Shapers, Secretary Mnuchin was asked about Artificial Intelligence (AI) supplanting human jobs. His reply was, “it’s not even on our radar screen… 50-100 more years” away. “I’m not worried at all.”

Economic and social stability in the future demands a more highly skilled and educated labor force. Lower skilled, routine jobs of the past are rapidly replaced by automation and robotics.

At the same time, there is strong evidence that automation and technology can create more jobs, even if they are less traditional.  Who will design the robots and maintain them?  Who will program the machines? Tube based electronics were replaced by transistors, propellers by jets, flash drives replaced floppy disks — but every one of these created new jobs.

Automation improves efficiency and safety in modern hospitals. Medicines are stored, delivered and dispensed efficiently by robots. Steril conditions are improved because there is less human contact. Routine surgical procedures may be carried out by robots controlled by doctors thousands of miles away.

In July of 2016, I was headed into Canada to do a western pine beetle damage survey when I broke my leg. The X-Ray diagnosis that discovered three fractures of my fibula was performed in Mumbai, India while I got dressed in Seattle, Washington.

In the cyberworld, vast amounts of information can be surveyed in seconds that would be impossible for one or a dozen humans taking months or even years.

Hazardous materials can be handled safely by machines.

Autonomous private vehicles are already on the road. Testing is underway for trucks, ships, drones and warehouse facilities. Long-haul trucks will soon be able to drive across country, stopping only for fuel.

A container ship can be loaded and off-loaded in a few hours. Containers are weighed as they are loaded and placed strategically for balance.

Technology can tell your home when to turn on the lights or adjust your thermostat when you leave or return.

Technology may make one job obsolete but it may also create new opportunities. In the 21st century, continued employment requires a wider variety of skills and constant retraining.

Not all jobs are transitioning or will transition as rapidly, but none are immune. If there is a multiplying effect on jobs from automation, it does little good if the labor force is unqualified to perform those new jobs. The business option to remain competitive is to automate, outsource or go where labor is cheaper.

A problem rests in understanding those vulnerabilities and translating that into prescriptive policy for the future. In technology and economics, history is not necessarily a good model to go by. It requires constant research and analysis to keep up with developments. In some cases, it is necessary to bend that evolution through prudent government stimulation and regulatory controls. Protecting entrenched old technologies and removing oversight and control is counter productive. The obsession with fossil fuels is not only counterproductive but blatantly dangerous.

The Trump administration and the majority of his appointments appear to be locked into a time warp. Their vision consists of puffing smokestacks, the thrumming of heavy machinery and legions of lunch-pail workers marching backward through the gates of history. The optimist believes technology will create more jobs than it destroys. The pessimist believes technology only replaces jobs. Neither is completely correct.

There is little doubt that globalization is in a constant state of transition. Many routine jobs are lost to automation; but, new jobs are constantly evolving with IT and automation. The key to successful governance is to provide social resilience and job training.

Cutting education and training is pouring oil on the fires of desperation and social instability. It is a false economy that cuts measures that improve worker qualifications. Without full employment by a well paid, skilled and flexible labor force, the economic foundation of a consumer based, capitalist economy is doomed to cyclical implosion.

If leaders like Secretary Mnuchin are unwilling or unable to acknowledge the significance of AI and automation on labor, society and the economy, the future will certainly be less promising.

W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.

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