How to prevent the ‘robot apocalypse’ from ending labor as we know it

It seems not a day goes by without the appearance of another dire warning about the future of work.

Some alarmists fear a “robot apocalypse,” while others foresee the day of “singularity” coming when artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence. Still others warn that income inequality will continue to rise as owners of capital capture more of the benefits of innovations than those who labor for a living.

Yet there is also a counter-trend emerging: Groups as diverse as the World Economic Forum and the International Labor Organization are beginning to argue that it’s up to society to shape the future of work. What’s needed is action today to harness and channel technological changes, prepare the workforce for new demands and opportunities, strengthen their voices and built a new social contract that includes leaders in business, education, labor and government.

These are some of the issues we’ll be discussing in an online course that draws on some of the best experts in AI, robotics, economics and employment relations at MIT and around the world. Our main point is that avoiding apocalyptic outcomes requires bold actions and a collaborative approach.

How to shape change

Virtually every technological revolution has inspired workers to fear for their jobs. And for good reason.

Each one resulted in the creation of new jobs alongside the elimination of others. At the same time, new technologies changed the way work is done within most occupations.

But fighting technology-inspired changes, as the Luddites of the early 19th century did, rarely works – and can in fact have disastrous consequences. The Luddites, textile workers and weavers who feared the advent of automated looms in England, destroyed machines and burned factories, hoping to arrest their advance. The government eventually quashed the unrest, killing some workers and jailing many others.

The new technologies that transformed the textile industry continued unabated. While many weavers lost their jobs, it created new ones for mechanics and other industrial workers and increased overall productivity.

The important lesson from this episode is that the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy occurred in the absence of updated policies to govern the transition, which led to more pain for those who were displaced than was necessary.

So as today’s workers in dozens of occupations face down the robot apocalypse, what’s needed aren’t more battle cries but concerted action by leaders in business, education, government and, of course, labor. And if, as predicted, AI and robotics do transform nearly half of jobs requiring new skill sets for workers, the current challenge may be greater than ever, making it even more important that we create a vision and a path forward that everyone can support.

GM’s joint venture with Toyota taught the U.S. automaker the value of integrating new technologies with new work practices. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Giving ‘wisdom to the machines’

Let’s start with business leaders since they buy and implement most new technologies.

The dominant business motivation for introducing new technology is to reduce human labor and the costs associated with it. Robots, or more broadly software, don’t leave for another job, go on strike or need bathroom breaks – let alone a paycheck or benefits.

But there is ample historical and current evidence that simply viewing technology as a labor cost saving tool leads to overinvestment and weak returns.

Just ask General Motors what it got for its nearly US$50 billion in robots in the 1980s in its futile effort to catch up with Toyota’s more efficient production and labor relations systems. The answer is not much.

Instead, GM eventually learned from Toyota via a joint venture that the highest return on investments came by integrating new technology with new work practices, which allowed workers to help “give wisdom to the machines.”