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Digital Disruption and the workforce

06 May, 2015
By Allison Orr

Rear Vision on RN this week looks at the history of digital disruption, a topic that comes up often in discussions over technology-driven job losses, the most talked-about current example being Uber.

They look back over the last 250 years and find that disruptive technologies have appeared about every 50 years – canals, railways, steel and heavy industry, oil and automobiles, and now computers and the Internet. 

The idea that machines would replace workers is a very old idea, going back at least as far as the Luddites in the 19th century, who have given their name to the idea of labour-replacing technologies.  The alarm has been raised many times, but so far mass replacement of humans by machines has not come true.

But a fear of automation has become an increasingly concerning idea.  In the podcast, Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, says we have a new kind of disruption.  In the past, it’s been confined to a particular industry, but now it’s across all industries and has the potential to disrupt our entire system.  Ultimately, he says, this will demand a political response: we will need policies to respond to this change.

According to Carlotta Perez, author of Technology Revolution and Financial Capital, there are two separate phases to every paradigm shift.  The installation phase, which lays down new infrastructures, challenges the old ways, and creates a new set of winners and losers.  After this collapses, like the dot.com bubble, comes the deployment phase, which is less turbulent and lasts longer, and promotes sharing of the wealth among a large number of people.  With the infrastructure laid, the technology can now live up to its promise.  This can be seen with the Internet being accessed by so many people and forming the foundation of so many industries .

So, will robots and computers replace humans?

According to this New York times video, this is already happening.  It describes a government program China called “replacing humans with robots”, which offers land grants and subsides for companies who go robotic.  The company they highlight in this report has cut its workforce nearly in half.  However, they argue that there is an upside for the workers: robots can free humans from doing work that is dangerous, monotonous and labour-intensive, leaving people to do the jobs that are creative and more meaningful.

But the idea that robots will free us from manual labour, leaving all the great creative jobs for humans, is a little problematic.  According to this pretty sobering summation, Humans Need Not Apply, as mechanical muscles pushed horses out of the economy, so mechanical minds will do to humans.  Robots don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be better than humans at any given task – and keep in mind, robots don’t get tired or distracted.  “We think the world’s smartest automation engineer could never design a robot to do your job, but the cutting edge of programming isn’t smart programmers writing for bots, it’s smart programmers writing bots that teach themselves to do things the programmer could never imagine.”

In Australia, a recent report by PwC, A Smart Move, argues that 44 per cent of current Australian jobs are at high risk of being affected by computerization and technology over the next 20 years. In order to “future proof” Australia’s workforce we need to be investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills.  The research indicates that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations now require these skills.

Previously published in undefined.

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