January 22, 2016      

Robot bashing The World Economic Forum (WEF) is at its annual mountain retreat in Davos, Switzerland, once again. An idyllic Swiss mountain village -with snipers seemingly on every roof top-replete with obligatory snowy scenery and lofty peaks in the distance, with an equally lofty, overarching conference theme: The Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s a theme that WEF founder and chairman, Klaus Schwab, has thought and written a lot about; his latest effort for the pages of Foreign Affairs. It’s the kind of theme, important as it is, that only gets attention when brought to a place like Davos where gangs of media teams roam the streets looking for the hot news of the day. CNBC alighted almost at once on The Fourth Industrial Revolution and spotted within a favorite subject guaranteed to stir up reader angst: robots. Robots because the WEF’s report on the future uses of robots pegged them as eager job replacements for humans. To wit, CNBC’s article: The Robot Revolution Could Wipe Out 5.1 Million Jobs by 2020. The use of the words “wipe out” is interesting, especially from a fanning-the-flames-of-future-massacres perspective. To revisit Yogi Berra and his famously oddball “It’s like deja vu all over again.” quote is to glimpse at the false hysteria that robophobia can usher up with a provocative headline followed by the number of jobs lost to robots, with job losses in the millions getting the most attention. In fact, technology has had frequent rendezvous with such headlines and witnessed such hysteria for a very long time. And it’s true that technology makes jobs obsolete in a hurry, but it’s also true that technology creates new jobs in a hurry as well. In the past, technology took and then replaced jobs in relative anonymity; there wasn’t the instant communication that there is today. It’s an instant communication that we can thank technology for silently guiding in among us, before it turned the volume up and left. At one time computers were the bad guys In 1961, President Kennedy addressed Congress, questioning why it was that a country in relative prosperity (a 10-month recession had ended the previous November 1960) had 5 million unemployed and a 6.6 percent unemployment rate. If there had been the Internet and Smartphones back then, zillions of photos and Facebook sob stories would have been sizzling cyberspace with grizzly photos of a thing called a computer and all the jobs it had engorged. Of course, back in 1961, mass hysteria couldn’t be aided and abetted with things yet to come like the Internet and Smartphones. Mass hysteria via digital devices would have to wait until the grizzly computer photos became cameras themselves and could slip into pockets and handbags. No one on the 12-person payroll team at Western Electric in 1961 said much when the team was reduced to four employees after an IBM 1401 mainframe was installed. Western Electric, at one time, had a monopoly on manufacturing telephones; three-pound, metal and molded plastic landlines with dials or push buttons on them. Every home had one of these beasts sitting on an end table somewhere. Yes, just one. The people in the telephone manufacturing departments at Western Electric felt bad about the losses of all the office jobs taking place, but life went on for them in manufacturing secure in the knowledge that they’d be making phones just about forever. Not so fast. In 1986, Western Electric’s Indianapolis Works telephone plant closed, and US production of single-line home telephones ended. So much for security. Bit by bit, technology had nibbled off chunks of the business from 1961 to 1986. It took about twenty years for all those Western Electric employees to fall to the advances of technology, which is just about how long experts say it will take robots to do the same. During those twenty years the attrition was mostly silent, and hysteria over it scary but manageable for most people. Especially manageable because technology was quickly backfilling industry with new, previously unheard of and previously unimagined jobs and careers. Neither Kennedy nor anyone else in 1961 realized the technology blowing up Pennsylvania Avenue that same year:

  • In 1961, Fairchild Semiconductor was pioneering the first integrated chip (IC)
  • In 1961, Richard Mattessich, pioneered the concept of electronic spreadsheets for use in business accounting.
  • In 1961, System Development Corporation created the first database.

The world’s employment scene was rocked to its core, but then recovered. It’s happening once again, and word of it is being discussed at Davos.