Could Elon Musk be dead wrong?
Musk, and many others such as Oxford University researchers Carl Frey and Mike Osborne, have been vocal in warning that huge numbers of jobs are at risk from robots in coming decades.
Last month, the Tesla Motors founder predicted so many workers would be displaced “due to automation,” governments will be obliged to pay a universal basic income.
But not everyone is buying it.
“The idea that we are heading for a workless future, and that we can argue for that on the basis of evidence at the moment, well I think that is a furphy,” says University of Melbourne professor Jeff Borland, adding that everyone from the US government in the 1960s to John Keynes in the 1930s, and even Karl Marx, have made similar predictions.
“History tells us that it is a claim that has been made many times before,” says Professor Borland during a telephone interview with AAMC News. “It’s a catchy story, and perhaps it fits with what we feel is happening around us.
“But it has rather a big problem: the fact is there is not much (or any) evidence to support it.”
Professor Borland, a widely respected labour economist, recently published a research paper, Are Robots Taking Our Jobs?, with fellow Melbourne uni economist, Michael Coelli, which found there is no evidence that computerisation is decreasing the aggregate hours of work done by labour in Australia.
Computerisation is certainly changing the types of jobs being done by workers, the paper finds, but the pace of change in the composition of employment and in job turnover is no quicker today than in any period before computers.
Most claims about the impact of robots and automation are vastly overstated, it concludes.
“A lot of people are making claims about the effects of robots and computers and they are saying there is stuff happening now.
“If you know history, those statements turn out to be arguable.
“You have to have the right skills for the jobs that are available. But the question of whether there will be jobs – well, I am pretty confident there will be, based on what we have observed of human life in the last 250 years,” University of Melbourne professor Jeff Borland.
The Industrial Revolution saw a major new source of power invented (steam), major new products invented which would revolutionise transport (iron and steel), and massive changes to the capital equipment used in the major industries at the time, (the Spinning Jenny and the new weaving machine), Professor Borland notes. And yet employment survived.
It is questionable that automation is causing more rapid disruption to the workplace than in any previous time period.
The study found that hours worked per person in the Australian population from 1966 to now have hardly changed.
“I just don’t see there is any evidence that the total amount of work is decreasing.Of course change is going on, computers and Internet technologies are causing new jobs to be created and some jobs to not exist any more but the point I’m making is that that is not happening at a more rapid pace than it has in the past,” Professor Borland says.
He notes the real decline of jobs like numerical jobs and tasks done by hand that can be programmed and done by a machine and says we will continue to see some replacement of jobs that can be codified. But at the same time computers have created new jobs such as software designer, and increased the productivity of other jobs such as accountants.
“Technology does get rid of some jobs but it makes other types of jobs for people with other types of skills more valuable. Computers may change the types of jobs being done, but there is no definite reduction in the total amount of work,” Professor Borland argues.
He also says that while computers may reduce the total amount of labour time needed to produce today’s consumption bundle, higher real incomes will expand demand for output, and that will absorb the available labour time.
“As long as humans are driven by relative positional consumption
Read a snapshot of the study here.