Is automation a threat to the America Dream, or an extension to it? You may have heard through local and global news, your social feed, or even personal experience that automation is on the rise. Over the summer, I lived in San Francisco. I worked in the financial district, near the Ferry building. On the first floor of 1 California, is a food joint called Etsa. From ordering my food to picking it up, I did not interact with a human. There was a person for customer traffic control that was visible, but that was it. There were stands with tablets that let me and others order. Their system took my name from my debit card, and when my food was ready, a cubicle would light up with my name on it, and with a finger tap, my cubicle would open for me to take my food. I still don’t know if a machine or a human made my food, because I couldn’t see past the cubicles.
The idea and implementation of machines doing jobs that humans have historically been known to do brings up controversy and sometimes you hear or read words like, “that’s not right.” With predictions like a 7% of occupations being automated by 2025, it leads me to wonder if this is both okay and right. Being for or against the advancement of automation in the workplace and being comfortable with calling it right or not right calls for an ethical framework. Is it right for a working class person to have their jobs taken?
One can think of a spectrum of occupations that would be personally affected. On one end, you might have people working in physical labor jobs, processing data, data collection, stakeholder interactions, applying expertise, and managing people. The first thing we need to clarify is — not all of these occupations are possible to be automated. According to an article from Mckinsey&Company, the spectrum aforementioned is ordered from most likely to become automated and then decreases.
So, to take the most likely to become automated, is automating physical labor right? Often these workers are unskilled and have families that depend on their income. History tells us that automation creates more jobs than are loss. These jobs, however, require one to prepare for them. Computing, for example is the largest sector of jobs in the United States. According the the referenced article, there are 500,000 high paying jobs open.
Depending on your ethical framework then, it might be easy to say that this is an opportunity for the working class and not a curse. The other question that one might ask is, why aren’t these jobs filled? The missing variable to this equation is a skilled workforce and the lack of education programs in place. According to code.org, 40% of schools do not teach code. So, is what we should be asking instead of “is automating jobs right?” is “is not funding and establishing proper education right?” both from the government and large tech companies that have the money to do it stand-point. Is it okay that large tech companies with talent, influence and money are not creating solutions to this problem?
I have seen and am a part of many diversity initiatives, but is that exclusivity right too? Shouldn’t computer education be available and as supporting to people of all backgrounds and skin colors? The current working class are not all minorities that fit diversity initiative requirements. They, and their children need a source of training. Is it right not to teach skills that will be needed in the future?