x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 August 2017

For every job lost to the robot revolution, an opportunity will arise

Too many scare stories mask potential benefits to society

The venture capitalist Benedict Evans says robots, such as this Dubai Police robot seen at last year's Gitex , should not be seen as a threat to jobs. Pawan Singh / The National
The venture capitalist Benedict Evans says robots, such as this Dubai Police robot seen at last year's Gitex , should not be seen as a threat to jobs. Pawan Singh / The National

When it comes to the issue of robots taking human jobs, there is an element of Chicken Little at play.

The fear has been brought up so many times that it is starting to lose its effect.

Another recent study, for example, suggested that each industrial robot introduced in the US between 1990 and 2007 killed off about six jobs.

Comparatively speaking, there are few studies or articles that attempt to predict how many new jobs – and what kinds of jobs – increased automation will create.

It is easy to understand why. It is simpler to match existing and near-term technological capability with tasks that humans currently do than it is to predict and imagine the things we may some day do.

That makes those rare educated guesses about future gains so refreshing. A recent blog post by the Andreessen Horotwitz venture capitalist Benedict Evans on the coming of electric and autonomous vehicles is a good example.

Mr Evans does not make specific job predictions, but he does try to consider some of the second and third-order effects that such vehicles are likely to bring about.

Electric cars, for example, will probably kill off petrol stations. But since many stations make most of their money from selling snacks and cigarettes rather than fuel, having fewer of them could translate into public health gains.

“There are meaningful indications that removing distribution reduces consumption – that cigarettes are often an impulse purchase and if they’re not in front of you then many smokers are less likely to buy them,” he writes.

Vehicle automation is also likely to bring about bigger societal changes, especially when it comes to parking. A few factors in this area could align to completely change everything around us, literally.

First, there is the cost of using a robot car. Removing the human driver in a taxi or bus may lower the cost of that service by about 75 per cent, which means that taking a robo-ride is likely to be inexpensive and within reach of just about everyone.

If so, there will not be much reason to own a car, which will have a big impact – and yes, probably lost jobs – on the insurance industry. But if people do not own vehicles and simply dial them up on their phones when they’re needed, there will not be much need for parking.

If parking is not needed, real estate can be rethought and made cheaper. A recent study in Oakland, California found that government-mandated parking requirements pushed construction costs up by 18 per cent per apartment. Adding underground parking to a mall, meanwhile, can easily double the project’s construction cost.

“If you both remove those costs on new construction and make that space available for new uses, how does that affect cities?” Mr Evans writes. “What does it do to house prices or to the value of commercial real estate?”

We don’t think much about parking, but the need for it has done much to determine how cities are laid out and developed. Suburbs and the businesses that revolve around them are largely a product of commuting and parking. Changing that dichotomy provokes the imagination.

How might cities change when a good portion of their parking spaces are suddenly freed up to be used in other ways? How will habitation patterns change when where people live is no longer dictated by their access to transport? Will the delineation between urban city centres and suburbs even be necessary anymore? Will those lines blur significantly?

When put in that light, there is a different kind of inevitability here besides people losing their jobs to machines.

“It’s crazy to think that all of that change isn’t going to create a commensurate amount of new demands and opportunities,” Mr Evans writes. “Robots aren’t going to fill those demands or meet those opportunities – humans will, and new jobs will arise as a result.”

It is important to note that this is just one aspect of technological change – we are only talking about cars.

Increased automation will bring about similar changes in many other aspects of life and business, which means new opportunities and demands will inevitably arise wherever robots and algorithms are found.

Put it all together and there is good reason to be optimistic rather than pessimistic.

Rather than more studies
on vanishing jobs, we need more of this sort of imaginative thinking, which looks at potential secondary and tertiary effects, because that is where new demands and opportunities – and jobs – will be found.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species