Back in 1940, a Canadian named Norman Breakey invented the paint roller—a leap forward in painting technology. Immediately, professional painters panicked, fearing large-scale job loss, and for years, paint rollers were banned from professional painting jobs. But of course, large-scale adoption was inevitable and now we all use paint rollers.
Fast forward 77 years, and we have a whole new wave of “techno panics.” Taxi drivers have demonstrated against ride-sharing services in New York, London, and Tokyo. India’s minister of transport and highways has declared that self-driving cars will be banned before they even take hold.
Is there reason to panic? It’s true that technology is causing disruption in many sectors – even after recovering 300,000 jobs since the depths of the Great Recession, the auto industry still has about 325,000 fewer jobs than in 2000. And the steel industry has suffered even more, with 75 percent of its U.S. jobs eliminated between 1962 and 2005.
But we’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again. The mass production of automobiles killed the jobs of backsmiths and carriage drivers, but raised thousands of autoworkers into the middle class in the early 20th century. Our current moral panic over drones, data, and the right to privacy began back in 1888, when the first Kodak camera made everyone a photographer. Today, we worry about the social upheaval caused by virtual reality or genetic engineering.
Change is a given. How will we respond?
We are engulfed by technology-driven change, but the question isn’t whether or not disruption will happen, it’s how will we respond?
One option is panic, denial, and resistance – the response of painters and railway workers 80 years ago. But I believe that if technology played a role in creating this disruption, technology can also help us deal with it.
Studies have shown that in several areas, new technologies are actually helping to create more jobs than they eliminate. A recent report from MIT predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) will create whole new categories of work that have never existed before. And many of them will be non-technical jobs—“empathy trainers” for AI devices, and “explainers” who bridge the gap between technology and business leaders. There will even be a renewed demand for people with liberal arts degrees, to help bring human values into AI applications.
For Amazon, automation has resulted in not just more, but better jobs. Since 2014, the company has deployed 100,000 robots in its warehouses—and hired 80,000 new employees. The robots take the heavy, repetitive jobs, and the employees do the more interesting work of monitoring and controlling the robots.
New Skills to Complement New Technologies
Technology companies and employers must work together to give workers the skills they will need to work with these new technologies. The World Economic Forum (WEF) found that 25 percent of workers in developed countries say their skills don’t match their current jobs—and 35 percent of the skills needed for jobs will change by 2020. A WEF task force is working on a strategy for giving workers the skills they will need for 21st century jobs. Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s CEO, is leading this initiative. He believes that we have the responsibility and power to retrain workers for the new jobs technology will create. It won’t be easy, but it’s a matter of vision and will.
Paint rollers and self-driving cars have a lot in common – they represent a huge leap forward in productivity and innovation, and they force us to confront our fears about change. Paint rollers caused industry disruption, as will self-driving cars, robots and AI. But I’m betting on the unimagined opportunities that are bound to come on the heels of technology disruption. Because after disruption comes transformation.