Americans and Automation in Everyday Life
Americans express more worry than enthusiasm about coming developments in automation – from driverless vehicles to a world in which machines perform many jobs currently done by humans. A Pew Research Center survey of 4,135 U.S. adults conducted May 1-15, 2017, finds that many Americans anticipate significant impacts from various automation technologies in the course of their lifetimes – from the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles to the replacement of entire job categories with robot workers. To gauge the opinions of everyday Americans on this complex and far-reaching topic, the survey presented respondents with four different scenarios relating to automation technologies. Americans express widespread concern – but also tempered optimism – about the impact of emerging automation technologies. Americans generally express more worry than enthusiasm when asked about these automation technologies. Most prominently, Americans are roughly twice as likely to express worry than enthusiasm about a future in which robots and computers are capable of doing many jobs that are currently done by humans. 76% of Americans expect that economic inequality will become much worse if robots and computers are able to perform many of the jobs that are currently done by humans. Majorities of Americans are reluctant to use emerging automation technologies themselves and express concerns about removing the human element from important decisions. In the event that robots and computers become capable of doing many human jobs, for example, 85% of Americans are in favor of limiting machines to performing primarily those jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for humans. A key attitudinal divide around emerging automation technologies: Those who are excited to try these technologies themselves versus those who are more hesitant. Many Americans expect a number of professions to be dominated by machines within their lifetimes – but relatively few expect their own jobs or professions to be impacted. Beyond the examples noted above, Americans anticipate significant changes to the nature of jobs and work in the coming decades as a result of automation. 6% of Americans report that they have already been impacted by automation in the form of lost jobs and/or wages. Much of this survey focuses on possible future impacts of automation, but a minority of Americans are already being impacted by these technologies in their own jobs and careers. Many Americans anticipate that various automation technologies will make significant inroads in terms of their development and adoption in the coming decades.
“The Relentless Pace of Automation”
The potential loss of millions of jobs is Exhibit A in a report issued by the outgoing U.S. administration in late December. The key issue for many voters there was the economy-or, more precisely, the shortage of relatively well-paying jobs. Many economists argue that automation bears much more blame than globalization for the decline of jobs in the region’s manufacturing sector and the gutting of its middle class. In his farewell speech to thousands in a packed convention hall in Chicago, President Obama warned: “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle-class jobs obsolete.” The report says greater deployment of AI and automation could boost economic growth by creating new types of jobs and improving efficiency in many businesses. That’s a far too facile way of looking at the impact of AI and automation on jobs today. None are specifically designed to help people whose jobs have disappeared because of automation. Wisely, the White House report rejects such a solution as “Giving up on the possibility of workers’ remaining employed.” As an alternative, Muro proposes what he calls a “Universal basic adjustment benefit.” Unlike the universal basic income, it would consist of targeted benefits for those seeking new job opportunities. No one actually knows how AI and advanced automation will affect future job opportunities. Predictions about what types of jobs will be replaced and how fast vary widely. One commonly cited study from 2013 estimated that roughly 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be lost over the next decade or two because they involve work that is easily automated. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that around 9 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk. “We don’t really know what it can do. It’s too soon to know its impact on jobs.” A key part of the answer, he says, will be to what extent the technologies are used to replace humans or to help them carry out their jobs and expand their capabilities. Personal computers, the Internet, and other technologies of the last several decades did replace some bank tellers, cashiers, and others whose jobs involved routine tasks. Initiatives like improved retraining for workers who have lost their jobs to automation, and increased financial protections for those seeking new careers, are steps recommended by the White House report.