March 30, 2020

Wake Up and Smell the Automation: Are We Ready to Lose Jobs to Robots?

Walk into a restaurant and order from a touchscreen. Call customer service and speak to a software program that sounds and answers questions like a human. Order an Uber and a self-driving car picks you up.

This is automation: the replacement of human workers with robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies. A 2013 Oxford University study concluded automation threatens 47% of jobs in the United States. According to a 2017 report by McKinsey and Co., 30% of U.S. workers may be displaced by 2030, forced to learn new skills to make a living.

It is not only blue-collar jobs at risk, but professions in medicine, law, accounting, finance, journalism and more.

Why should this matter to Jews? Because automation threatens to devastate communities across the U.S. and beyond, and we will not be immune. We must wake up to this reality and start preparing for it now. Automation could make people’s lives better in many ways. The coming technological revolution promises to deliver cheaper and higher-quality products, as well as safer and faster transportation, better health care and more. However, the other side of the coin is that many of today’s most common jobs will disappear.

Retail currently is among the largest sources of employment in the U.S., with nearly 16 million people working in various sectors. Yet, we are in the midst of what Business Insider casually refers to as “the retail apocalypse.” More than 9,300 stores closed in 2019, and some analysts predict this may climb to 12,000 in 2020. The list of chains expected to shut down hundreds of locations this year is staggering. It includes major brands such as Walgreens, the Gap and Forever 21.

The retail apocalypse is driven largely by online sales, with giants such as Amazon, Target and Walmart reaping the benefits. E-commerce does create new jobs, but it concentrates them in just a few parts of the country while leaving much of the rest behind. Amazon is striving to eliminate many of those new jobs in the years to come by replacing the people operating its shipping warehouses with robots.

Some may point to today’s low unemployment figures and conclude all these concerns are overblown. That would be a mistake.

Food service is ground zero for automation, as well. In 2018, a group of engineers from MIT opened Spyce, a restaurant that replaces humans with robot line cooks. Last year, Samsung debuted Bot Chef, a device featuring two robot arms that make entire meals, minus a few finishing touches. Imagine ordering from a self-service kiosk or a voice-activated drive-through and receiving a meal robots prepared. McDonald’s is working aggressively to make this happen and others surely will follow. How many of the 13 million restaurant industry jobs will remain after all is said and done?

Should you decide to order takeout in the future, the automated chef that prepared your meal may hand it off to a food delivery robot. This is the tip of the iceberg, as Google, General Motors, Tesla and other major corporations are in intense competition to put reliable self-driving vehicles on the road. The timeline is not entirely clear yet, but what is certain is that when one of these companies finally breaks through, it will put millions of people, from Uber drivers to truck drivers, out of work.

White-collar jobs are not safe, either. In his book “The War on Normal People,” entrepreneur, nonprofit leader and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang writes, “Some of the jobs requiring the most education are actually among the most likely to become obsolete.” On a Harvard Business School podcast about the future of white-collar work, professor Richard Baldwin cautions students not to “acquire lots and lots of skills in something that AI is going to automate very soon … the classic being radiologists and many types of medical diagnosis or many types of legal reasoning where you have to read lots of paper and digest it.”

The displacement of workers because of technological progress is not a new phenomenon. During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, cotton mills made traditional weaving obsolete. Automobiles put drivers of horse-drawn carriages out of jobs. Tractors and other farming innovations reshaped our entire economy, as agricultural workers dropped from one third to just 2% of the U.S. labor force from 1910 to 2010.

These changes led to massive economic growth and improvements in our collective standard of living, but it was far from a smooth transition. As people shifted from farming and crafts to industrial labor, there were violent protests, with numerous deaths and damages that would cost billions today. The rise of communism inspired revolutions that ultimately led to the oppression and murder of millions of people. New forms of anti-Semitism arose, as Jews were blamed for the evils of both capitalism and communism. Countries that remained democratic had to enact major social reforms, such as limiting the work week to 40 hours.

Industrial societies ultimately overcame this instability because new technologies created new jobs and people learned the skills necessary to do those jobs. Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne write, “The story of the twentieth century has been the race between education and technology. …. The reason why human labour has prevailed relates to its ability to adopt and acquire new skills by means of education.”

A 2013 Oxford University study concluded automation threatens 47% of jobs in the United States. According to a 2017 report by McKinsey and Co., 30% of U.S. workers may be displaced by 2030, forced to learn new skills to make a living.

So why should we be deeply concerned this time around?

For centuries, technology eliminated jobs because it performed certain physical labor better than people. The crucial difference in the 21st century is that technology increasingly will outperform the human brain, as well. Without physical or cognitive advantages over robots and AI, what will happen to workers?

In his book “Homo Deus,” renowned Israeli scholar Yuval Harari writes, “In the twenty-first century, we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class.” He argues technology likely would help this “unworking class” survive, but it is unclear what people would do all day. One possibility is “drugs and computer games,” which would “provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the drab reality outside.”

Anxiety about this issue is beginning to seep into popular culture. An episode of the Netflix show “Black Mirror” depicts a future in which people live in massive warehouses, surrounded by interactive screens. They spend their “workday” peddling bicycles to create the electricity that powers their mostly digital existences. If they earn enough credits, they can enter an “American Idol”-style talent show. The few who win get to be entertainers, appearing on screen for the bicycle-peddling masses.

These scenarios might be too optimistic. According to Harari, automation may lead to “wealth and power … [becoming] concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality.”

Many Jews would struggle to cope with this reality, just like every other community. But we must also consider that such socioeconomic misery often has led to spikes in various forms of hatred, including anti-Semitism. 

Jews have been a frequent target in times of turmoil. 

In 1347, a disease known as the Black Death appeared in Europe and wiped out an estimated 25 million people in four years. The plague was particularly devastating because it came during a decadeslong period of economic collapse and starvation. Rumors immediately spread that Jews were responsible and, by late 1348, they were “being slaughtered wholesale, particularly in Switzerland and the Rhineland.” Some historians believe this anti-Semitism was, “not just paranoid but economic. Many Jews were moneylenders; many Christians owed them money. The pogroms cancelled the debts.” 

For centuries, technology eliminated jobs because it performed certain physical labor better than people. The crucial difference in the 21st century is that technology increasingly will outperform the human brain, as well. Without physical or cognitive advantages over robots and AI, what will happen to workers?

Nazi Germany is the most famous case. After World War I, Germany was in disarray, facing a series of economic crises that culminated in the Great Depression of 1929. Banks failed and unemployment skyrocketed, creating “an angry, frightened, and financially struggling populace open to more extreme political systems, including fascism and communism.” This helped create an environment where “Hitler had an audience for his antisemitic and anticommunist rhetoric that depicted Jews as causing the Depression.”

What will happen in a scenario of massive unemployment and economic pain caused by automation? If Harari’s fears come true, it is not hard to imagine Jewish tech executives being demonized and held up as “proof” that Jews are to blame for the ills of the 21st century.

Some may point to today’s low unemployment figures and conclude all these concerns are overblown. That would be a mistake.

As many across the political spectrum have pointed out, headline unemployment numbers are misleading. These statistics do not reflect the number of people who want to work full-time but find only part-time positions. They do not indicate how many college graduates are doing jobs that don’t require a degree, nor do they account for the fact the labor force participation rate in the U.S. has decreased significantly since 2000.

Others downplay the threat of automation by arguing that new types of jobs will appear, and workers will adapt to fill those openings. The first part of that equation is true; in the future, there will be many jobs we can’t imagine today. But what skills will those new jobs require? Will someone working in retail easily transition into a profession that doesn’t exist yet?

The evidence indicates this is wishful thinking. Studies show government-sponsored job-retraining programs have been failing for decades. Meanwhile, huge numbers of manufacturing workers who have been displaced by automation and globalization remain unemployed, relying on government benefits to survive.

The lasting human costs of these job losses are evident across the U.S. Researchers at Youngstown State University studied Youngstown, Ohio, which suffered massive unemployment after steel factories shut down in the 1980s, along with other cities that faced similar challenges in recent years. They found that “deindustrialization undermines the social fabric of communities.”

Beyond unemployment, consequences include “the loss of … homes and healthcare; reductions in the tax base, which in turn lead to cuts in necessary public services like police and fire protection; increases in crime … suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, family violence and depression … and loss of faith in institutions.” These disturbing trends are reflected nationally. American life expectancy is dropping largely because of “drug overdoses, suicides, alcohol-related illnesses, and obesity.” Public trust in many of our most important institutions has fallen to historic lows.

This may be a mere preview of what will happen across the country as automation spreads through nearly every major industry. It is up to all of us to chart a different course.

American society must begin debating, preparing and implementing solutions now, and the first step is raising awareness about the challenges we face. Many people simply have not been paying attention, myself included. I became concerned only after reading “Homo Deus.” Journalists are not pursuing this story hard enough to make an impact. Few political leaders even talk about the threat of automation, let alone suggest ways to address it.

We will miss out on many creative solutions from businesses, nonprofits, academic institutions and individuals unless we generate massive popular awareness and demand. 

Thankfully, this is beginning to change. Entrepreneur and nonprofit founder Andrew Yang ran for president in 2020 with the goal of educating and inspiring Americans to confront the challenges of the 21st century. Although he recently suspended his campaign, he succeeded in building a movement with more than 400,000 donors and millions of supporters across the political spectrum. Yang will soon announce how he plans to build on this foundation.

Business and nonprofit leaders also are doing crucial work to raise awareness. WorkingNation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, was founded in 2016 by venture capitalist Art Bilger. Its mission is to “expose hard truths about the looming unemployment crisis and bring the country together to create and amplify solutions for a changing economy.” The organization reaches an audience of millions, with a wealth of educational resources about the future of work. WorkingNation also highlights companieselected officialsnonprofits and academic leaders helping people learn the skills they need for the jobs of the 21st century.

According to Bilger, “massive structural unemployment is everyone’s problem. …. This major challenge requires a widespread movement toward creating a workforce that is resilient, able to navigate the changing workplace and adapt.” His vision is for employers, government leaders, nonprofits, educational institutions and others to cooperate on a local level to make this happen.

There is no question massive improvements in education and retraining will be essential moving forward. According to Harari, “Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050. At present, too many schools focus on cramming information. …. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all, to combine many bits of information into a broader picture of the world.” He argues we will have to constantly reinvent ourselves to stay relevant, and that building resilience and adaptability is more important than learning specific skills.

WorkingNation’s video “Slope of the Curve” is a great educational tool with which to start.

This leads to another fundamental challenge: As technology surpasses the ability of humans to perform increasingly complex tasks, can we rely on education alone?

Some believe the threat of automation requires more drastic solutions. Andy Stern, who once led the largest labor union in the U.S., has become a prominent advocate for a universal basic income (UBI). Many prominent technologists, including Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, have come out in support of UBI, as well. Yang’s education proposals include major investment in technical and vocational training because he believes those jobs will be more difficult to replace with technology. But the core of his presidential campaign was the Freedom Dividend, a UBI proposal calling for every U.S. citizen older than 18 to receive $1,000 per month. He argues this would stimulate local economies, while helping communities cope with and adapt to the challenges of the 21st century.

We can and should vigorously debate about how to best prepare ourselves for technology displacing millions of workers. Is it better to focus all our efforts on improving our education system and retraining programs? Or do we need more dramatic solutions, like UBI? Are there other ideas we should consider? What about a combination of all of the above?

Our local, state and national governments will not focus on how to address automation unless we, the people, pressure them to do so.

We no longer have the luxury of ignoring these questions, but that is largely what political leaders on both sides of the aisle are doing. While Yang’s candidacy made a significant impact, automation is not one of the core issues being discussed in the 2020 elections.

This is not a status quo any of us should accept.

Our local, state and national governments will not focus on how to address automation unless we, the people, pressure them to do so. You can start by contacting your elected officials and asking them how they will tackle this challenge. We should expect every candidate for public office to have a detailed plan and articulate why it represents the best approach.

Similarly, we will miss out on many creative solutions from businesses, nonprofits, academic institutions and individuals unless we generate massive popular awareness and demand. We can do this by making the future of work a central topic of conversation at our dinner tables, in our schools and communities, on social media and beyond. WorkingNation’s video “Slope of the Curve” is a great educational tool with which to start.

Will we stumble toward a bleak dystopia defined by inequality, divisions and hate, or will we put our differences aside and fight together for a future that works for all of us? This is the defining political question of our time, and we are running out of time to answer it.


Max Samarov is executive director of research and strategy at StandWithUs. This story represents his personal views.