Automation has become a huge concern in recent years. With computer algorithms getting more and more sophisticated, machines are becoming increasingly able to do jobs that are many people’s bread and butter.
Driverless cars have been on our roads for years. Although they aren’t commercially available yet, they eventually will be. Once that happens, they’ll easily replace cab drivers, as well as people currently contracted by rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft. After all, if employers can remove the expense of paying drivers, they can provide their services for much cheaper while still retaining a greater net profit.
That’s not the only place automation might shift the job market. We’ve already seen integration of self-checkout registers in large grocery chains. Even fast food restaurants are getting behind the trend. McDonald’s currently has kiosks at various of its locations that allow customers to order and receive their food without any human interaction (a millennial’s dream). Carl’s Jr. and Hardees intend to test out kiosks to some of their locations as well.
These restaurants, along with a few much smaller chains, still require human cooks to prepare the food though.
However, back in 2012 a robotics startup company Momentum Machines developed a prototype of a fully autonomous machine that takes orders, cooks the burger, slices the toppings, assembles the burger, wraps it all up, and gives it to the customer. This machine was shown to be able to prepare 400 burgers in an hour, and the company has already purchased a building in the San Francisco Bay Area and intends to open a fully autonomous restaurant very soon. The restaurant will still require a few humans to ensure the machines run smoothly and to empty out the cash and perform other small tasks.
Obviously if this new robo burger joint proves itself profitable, we can expect large chains to get in on this.
The question on a lot of people’s minds has been, if machines can taxi people around and take orders and flip burgers, where does that leave the millions of individuals currently employed to fill these jobs?
Markets Change – It’s Been Happening Since the Beginning of Markets
Keep in mind that this isn’t really anything new. Printing presses eliminated the need for scribes, and more recently online media has reduced the need for printing presses. Vending machines took the job of venders a long time ago. And don’t forget that elevator operators use to be a thing.
But do you see folks complaining about there being no scribes or elevator operators nowadays? Of course not! We realize that those jobs went away because they were made obsolete. The same thing is happening now, just with different jobs. If anything, we should be praising business innovations such as these.
Businesses have always been innovating in ways to make their themselves more efficient, thus more profitable and more satisfying to the consumer. It’s just the way it is.
And the thing is, these innovations, and others like it, might take jobs from some unskilled positions – but they’ll also create jobs for more skilled laborers, such as the engineers who build these machines, the computer scientists who develop the algorithms for these machines, and the IT workers who will fix software and hardware issues when they happen. That’s a lot of high paying jobs we’re talking about.
Nevertheless, we do have to keep our unskilled laborers in mind. Surely not everyone has the privilege (or the time, given that plenty of families are forced to work multiple jobs to feed their families) to obtain a skill or education. And even if every fast food worker obtained a new skill, then other markets would just become flooded with overqualified job seekers.
There’s already plenty of college graduates doing jobs that high schoolers also do. There’s people with valuable skills who still end up places like fast food restaurants. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.
And as I already mentioned, not everyone has the luxury of obtaining useful skills. Where will all these hard working Americans go?
Let’s Not Forget the Benefits Though
We have to consider all the facts here: business innovation may remove obsolete jobs, but with the added efficiency, goods and services are able to go down.
Take, for instance, autonomous cars. While it’s unfortunate that so many people will be out of taxi and rideshare jobs, the decline in prices of these services could positively affect other people.
For instance, if the price of transportation services drops well enough below the cost of owning and keeping up a vehicle, that could mean less expenses for many families. Think of all the lower class families who struggle to pay bills. Can you imagine what a relief it would be when they find they can still get to work without having to pay on a car note and keep up with costly insurance, gas, and general upkeep of a car?
Cars are expensive. But for right now, owning one is still necessary in most areas. Think of all the lower class Americans who have their car break down and then can’t afford to have it fixed. I’ve been there more than once and it’s no fun. If transportation services drop low enough due to not having to pay a driver, those families may not be in near as big of a pickle as they would be without the modestly priced services.
More families also may realize that it’s no longer economical to keep up with a vehicle and opt instead for cheaper automated taxi services. They then will find they have extra money to spend on other things, or more money to save.
In addition, whenever automated kiosks and even automated food prepping robots become a commonality, we’ll see a decline in food prices. This could be especially good for low income earners who struggle to keep food on the table. The cheaper food becomes for these families, the better, right? It doesn’t all have to be unhealthy even. There’s another automated restaurant in California that spits out quinoa bowls with fresh vegies at a competitive price (being as there’s no cashiers to pay). And the more common automation in restaurants becomes, the more healthier options will be able to compete.
So while technological innovation may eliminate some people’s jobs, other folks may see many benefits. I may be too optimistic here, but perhaps if the prices of enough goods and services go down, maybe part time wages will become sufficient enough for enough people to live comfortably on that more jobs will open up as a result. Who really knows?
Jobs Are a Means – Not an End in Themselves
This is a factor that we’ve long lost realization of. The end result that we all strive for is to have all our basic needs met and to be able to enjoy some comforts that make life enjoyable. Work is just the means to get us there.
I feel like it becomes a problem when we view jobs as an end. This type of mindset is what has stifled all manner of businesses since forever.
Businesses strive to run as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Whether it’s using cheaper material, finding ways to use less material, or inventing ways to lessen the amount of work required to perform a function.
In other words, businesses seek to lessen burdens and increase yield.
Conversely, the government has always been in the business of finding ways to increase burdens and diminish yield. To some extent, diminishing yield makes sense on the grounds of supply and demand. Surely if every business were permitted to run as efficiently as possible, then everything would be cheap and then those businesses and those whom they employ won’t be able to make as much. Except that the producers are also consumers in their own right, so if the goods and services the producers enjoy as consumers are lower, then it all works out in their favor after all.
Nevertheless, the government has made sure to enforce laws dictating (or merely incentivizing) where businesses may obtain their materials, who they may do business with, how they should compensate their employees, et cetera.
They do this in a number of ways: introducing tariffs, placing hefty taxes on necessary items, and just in general regulating the heck out of everything they do.
For that matter, I would not be surprised if the government decided to levy an automation tax to employers who opt to utilize any level of automation. At the very least I’m sure using automated machines for commercial purposes will require a special license by some point.
And this is why we can’t have nice things. Because jobs are treated as an ends. All people must have full time jobs to just make it because they make so little yet everything is kept so expensive.
Maybe… just maybe… if businesses were permitted to run as efficiently as their owners and innovative employees could dream possible, a greater abundance of goods and services could be brought about, thus lessening the means necessary to meet our worldly ends.
One thing is for sure. Automation will inevitably remove various jobs, but it will also drive prices for goods and services down, which may compensate for the loss in income in enough families to be considered a net gain for society.
That is, if allowed to operate unstifled.
More than likely though, government will do everything they can to stifle the autonomous industry so they can look like they’re “bringing jobs back” or something.
And then, yet again, the inability for industry to thrive will be blamed on capitalism. It’ll be just another failure of socialism blamed on capital. Meanwhile, the leftists will be able to claim they stopped those greedy capitalists from taking people’s jobs and we’ll be left to keep working the same redundant toil for as little net gain as the state deems fit. Essentially rolling the same boulder up the same hill, just like Sisyphus before us.
Note: This article previously appeared on The Mises Institute under the title “Will Automation Make Us Poor“. However, it was heavily edited, to include the entire last third of the essay being removed due to space concerns. I fully understand the decision. I did sort of trail off there at the end anyway. However, since most of the comments on that submission were concerned with the exact concerns I raised in the final third section of the essay, I decided I may as well post it here in its entirety.