Maybe robots aren't the enemy, as jobs and economy surge: Don Pittis

Maybe it's time to stop blaming robots. There are still plenty of things that need doing. The trick is to adjust our economy to make that happen.

Economy must adjust as automation frees up workers to do other useful things

Man's best friend challenges the worker's worst enemy, but even as robots improve, employment figures seem to indicate there are still plenty of jobs left for humans. Whether they are good jobs is the question. (Boston Dynamics)

If the robot revolution is supposed to take away all the jobs, why is unemployment falling?

Data released Friday morning show 10,700 jobs created in November in Canada and 178,000 in the U.S. But improving employment figures, especially in the U.S., seem to indicate, at this point anyway, that robots haven't succeeded yet in putting us out of work.

That doesn't mean warnings about computers and robotics as a threat to your job have gone away.

"Millions of Canadians might lose their jobs to automation in the next decade," begins the summary of a new report from the University of Toronto's Mowat Centre just last week.

But the real focus of the report, called Working Without a Net: Rethinking Canada's Social Policy in the New Age of Work, isn't strictly the loss of jobs to robots — it's the loss of good-quality, well-paying, reliable jobs, according to co-author Sunil Johal.

Robotics or economics?

There are still many experts who warn that machines are coming for your job. Johal's report is part of a growing movement trying to make sure that humans are not left behind in the rush to automation.

When we see Boston Dynamics videos of robots that can walk on uneven terrain or scamper about like a dog (much to the annoyance of a real dog), it is easy to feel threatened.

Rhetorical essays like the wonderfully frightening online video "Humans Need Not Apply" only add to the feeling that the human worker's days are numbered.

But economists insist that, as has happened in the past, humans who lose their jobs to machines will find other work.

Creating and destroying

Adam Saunders, a University of British Columbia professor who researches the connection between technology and economics, says technology is creating work as well as destroying it.

And he says there are plenty of jobs left where humans will continue to be better than machines. He points to an ironic example in the movie Up in the Air when George Clooney's character travels from place to place telling people they have lost their jobs.

Waterloo, Ont.-based Clearpath Robotics is creating jobs building self-driving robots. (Clearpath)

"There's no reason why a computer couldn't do that," says Saunders. "But there are things that human beings, in terms of empathy, for example, can do much better."

The idea that humanity has run out of things to do with human labour is clearly absurd.

From child care to potholed streets and substandard housing to medical services, the difficulty is not finding things that need doing. The hard part is shaping our economy so that people can make a good living doing them.

"Because a lot of these issues are happening at a very macro level — like this is just how our capitalist system is structured, this is the nature of how corporations do business — it's hard for people to wrap their heads around what's actually going on," says Johal.

On Twitter, advocates for a guaranteed basic income offer a parade of examples of all the machines coming to take human jobs.

But many of the jobs they take, backbreaking tasks such picking cotton or fruit, or boring ones such as sticking pickles in jars eight hours a day, will not be missed so long as there is some other way for people to earn money. And farmers say they can't find workers.

In the early 1800s, a group known as the Luddites famously smashed labour-saving machinery in order to defend their jobs. In an essay titled Luddites Past and Present, the Canadian historian F.K. Donnelly pointed out the term has become a "non-specific term of opprobrium," but people forget that the Luddites were part of a movement fighting for better labour conditions.

"Some of the machinery destroyed by the Luddites had been invented a century earlier and it is more accurate to see a part of their activity as collective bargaining by riot," he wrote.
Self-driving vehicles could put millions out of work. So far this self-driving truck only works on the open highway, requiring human drivers for the remainder. (Tony Avelar/Associated Press)

A crucial part of what happened in the labour action between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s was the creation of a working class rich enough to be able to afford the products and services they produced themselves. This created a virtuous circle that included both producers and consumers.

Johal says there are signs that has changed and the biggest issue of our time is income inequality. While it is good to have jobs, jobs are not enough, he says.

Friday's employment numbers in both the U.S. and Canada show far more part-time jobs created than full-time and average wages stagnant.

"It's much easier for politicians to say, 'Look! Employment is back to where we should be, we're going to be OK,'" says Johal.

"But the underlying trend in terms of income inequality, wage stagnation, and the coming risks around automation mean we have to have a much more frank discussion around the fact that maybe things aren't going to be OK."

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.