Robot engineers

Mark my words, 2016 will be remembered as the year humans became obsessed with robots taking their jobs.

We’ve heard about the possibility of autonomous cars taking over from drivers, computer programs swiping the jobs of accountants and robots that write stories better than journalists.

[Can robots do journalists’ jobs better than we can?]

The apparent acceleration of progress in automation is leading to some cataclysmic thinking. Eminent physicist Stephen Hawking warned we could all end up unemployed.

Should we really be afraid? What motivates this fear? Is the pace of technological change really so much swifter now than in the industrial revolution?

We’ve lived through many periods of automation, long before the current conceptualisation of robot as software. It’s easy to overlook the number of roles that have been obliterated.

There is a cobbled laneway at the rear of my house, for example. Such laneways were once the workplace for people who worked carting away excretions. But the sewer pipe took the job of the nightsoil man.

Does anyone mourn that job? What about the cobble-hewers who were put out of work by the asphalt mongers and steamrollers of contemporary road making?

History shows us technological unemployment is fleeting. As the necessities of life are made absurdly cheap by efficient utilities, industrial agriculture and globalised textile industries, the economy shows no signs of ceasing to invent new things to want. Services — often labour intensive ones related to health, from surgery to counselling to yoga — are taking over the economy.

Examining the fear around “robots taking our jobs” reveals something interesting. The motivation could be less about robots qua robots, and more about our changing relationship to jobs themselves. The fear of something — anything — taking our jobs is fairly new, and growing sharply, as this graph from Google’s Ngram hints. (Ngram — a robot librarian, if you will — collects mentions of a phrase from books published between 1500 and 2008.)

Taking our jobs Ngram J murph

For while robot technology is mutating rapidly, so is our relationship to work.

There have been two major shifts. First, from a concept of work to a concept of jobs. Then a second shift — to a growing concept of ownership of that job.

J Murph our jobs ngram


Jobs are, increasingly, the centre of our identities.

What do you do J Murph Ngram

The issue is not merely cultural, it is also material. Losing your job is a huge source of fear, due to the rather dilapidated state of First World welfare systems.

The increased salience of “our jobs” could explain why economic nationalism is also having a resurgence in the West; Trump’s wall and Hanson’s senatorship being two examples that spring to mind. Foreigners taking your job is not so different to robots. The two fears are mirrors of each other.

(Perhaps worrying about robots taking your job is simply how employment-related fear job manifests in people with a bit more trade theory in their brains and a bit less racism in their hearts. Robots are, after all, a perfectly socially acceptable other to demonise!)

It is no surprise “our jobs” are a lightning-rod for passion. We vote for those who promise to protect them and increase their number. And we abhor those who put them under threat, whether they are robots or citizens of other passports.

Our jobs J Murph Ngram

Our fiercely protective relationship with our jobs probably reflects a lack of other sources of security in a frightening world. A great sign the world is growing more comfortable will be if — as during the post-WWII era — we notice a decreasing taste for the phrase “our jobs”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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