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Robots aren’t taking our jobs, yet

Jobs, Robots and Us author Kinley Salmon visited Gisborne recently for a public discussion around perceptions about automation and alternative futures for New Zealand. Mark Peters reports.

Last here many years ago for a soccer tournament and now working for the World Bank out of Washington DC, Jobs, Robots and Us author Kinley Salmon returned to Gisborne recently to talk about the reality of what artificial intelligence and a robotic workforce will mean for the future of work.

The Nelson-born dual Cambridge and Harvard graduate and economist talked about themes addressed in his book, which examines common perceptions about automation and presents alternative futures.

The media tell us our jobs are under threat from technology, said Mr Salmon.

“Almost half of New Zealand’s jobs at risk of automation — will you lose yours?” was one of several excitable headlines he had read.

“The media suggests robots are doing this themselves. Automation and job losses aren’t as scary and are not as fast as we’re told.

“The kind of future of work we get in New Zealand depends on decisions we make to shape it.”

That will not be easy. Big challenges will need to be faced. If we drift into the future, the country faces greater difficulties.

“We have to talk about the future of work but also the present, and what we can do about the future of work.

“Each type of technological innovation impacts the future of our jobs. We can influence and even control the types of technology we get.”

Sustainable innovation helps keep people in jobs but doesn’t create new jobs. A company such as Apple regularly upgrades its devices and app platforms, and that helps keep people in jobs, but upgrades do not create new jobs, said Mr Salmon.

Market innovations are most likely to create new jobs.

The government needs to invest in research and development to encourage continued employment. Satellite technology and fracking are examples of state-funded research overseas.

The private sector has an important role in job creation, but he noted pharmaceutical companies, for instance, developed drugs for male baldness and erectile dysfunction, but did not develop vaccines for malaria.

Carbon prices in New Zealand were below the cost of carbon emissions. Because of a lack of a real price on carbon, investment in technology to reduce carbon was prohibitive.

New technologies often take a long time to become commonplace. Driverless cars seem new, but the first driverless car navigated roads in Paris in 1994. Solar energy seems like a relatively new innovation but the world’s first solar panel was installed on a roof in New York in 1884, said Mr Salmon.

“But today solar power amounts to 1.6 percent of global energy production.”

There is no evidence technological adoption has accelerated over the past 60 years, according to a McKinsey study. Uptake of new technologies can come down to affordability.

“If cost was no object, all jobs would be at risk of automation. This isn’t factored into the media’s language.”

If the predictions of robots and automation taking over great swathes of existing jobs were true, we would expect to have started to see that affecting employment. Instead, unemployment in New Zealand, the US and Britain was at the lowest it had been for many decades, he said.

Productivity growth in New Zealand was at the lowest it had been since the 1960s.

Automation could help generate jobs, as it did in the 19th century.

“When 98 percent of the process of weaving clothes was automated in the 1800s, employment grew. People could afford to buy cheaper clothes.”

The increase in sales led to an increase in jobs.

New Zealand cannot afford to be complacent about a transition into automation, though, said Mr Salmon.

“We need to push leaders into creating technologies that create jobs,” he said.

“We need to improve social welfare systems to give every Kiwi a good start. Child poverty will make it harder for them to get jobs in the future.

“In Sweden the robots are coming and everything is fine. Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are most at ease with automation.”

Economic and social policies common to those countries include a comprehensive welfare state and a valued education system.

“But if you’re excited about technology, there is a pathway and your background shouldn’t be an inhibitor.”

Mr Salmon said he wrote Jobs, Robots and Us because the future looked scary and he wanted to examine it in a New Zealand context.

If robots were about to take over our work we could expect to see higher unemployment, higher productivity and disincentives to look for work.

“We can still shape the future because it hasn’t overwhelmed us.”

Kinley Salmon’s views are his own and not those of his employer the World Bank.

I, KINLEY: Robots are unlikely to take over your job but rapid technological change means New Zealand needs to consider the future of work, said Jobs, Robots and Us author Kinley Salmon at a recent public talk in Gisborne. Picture by Paul Rickard