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Can Anything Slow Technology’s Job Takeover?

The rapid advance of technological innovations that make everyday tasks simpler and faster also comes with a downside.

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Such progress continues to be a threat to jobs as companies learn they can be more efficient and cost effective if they let robots and computer software perform tasks traditionally handled by humans.

“The reality is that technology is eliminating many jobs through automation at a rate too fast for society to adjust,” says William Meisel, a technology analyst, entrepreneur and author of “Technically Dead” (www.thesoftwaresociety.com), a mystery with technological themes.

“Mandating higher wages by increasing the minimum wage, as some politicians have suggested, doesn’t address the core economic problem. It can even make things worse by encouraging more automation.”

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A better solution, Meisel says, is for the government to craft a mechanism that would encourage companies to create, rather than eliminate, jobs. He suggests a potential answer is an “automation tax” that would be part of the corporate taxes companies pay and would give them an incentive to keep humans employed.

“The amount that companies are taxed would be based on the ratio of employees to company revenue,” Meisel says. “A company that has high revenue relative to the number of employees would pay a higher tax than a company that uses more people to generate the same revenue.”

Unprofitable companies and small companies could be excluded from the tax, he says, and rates on other taxes, such as profits, could be lowered to generate the same amount of revenue.

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“Companies might be tempted to fight such legislation, especially if they would face higher taxes, but I would argue that they could come out ahead,” Meisel says. “People with jobs are consumers. When the number of jobs declines or average income declines, those consumers buy less. That hurts the overall economy.”

At the moment, though, worldwide trends point toward industrial robots becoming even more commonplace and jobs for humans less so, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group analysis that looked at 21 industries in the world’s top 25 leading manufacturing export economies.

The analysis determined that about 1.4 million industrial robots are in use around the world today, but that could grow to 4 million in the next decade.

 “I do worry about job-killing robots,” Meisel says. “But that’s not the only concern when it comes to technology replacing people.”

He points out that a recent Wall Street Journal article said just 9 percent of American jobs are in manufacturing, so robots might not be as great a threat to jobs in the U.S. as they are in some other countries.

A greater problem, Meisel says, is that technologies such as speech-recognition software are automating jobs that previously required humans to converse with other humans.

“Jobs that required understanding human speech, such as call-center agents and medical transcriptionists, are being replaced by software,” Meisel says. “Trends like that are why we need to understand that our current economic doldrums aren’t just a cycle that will correct itself.”

That point is reinforced by research by the McKinsey Global Institute, which suggests that 45 percent of activities people are paid to perform can be automated by adapting current technologies. That represents about $2 trillion in annual wages in the U.S. The research further indicated that if technologies can achieve a median level of human ability to process and understand natural language, an additional 13 percent of activities could be automated.

“A full recovery requires our leaders to recognize that over-automation is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed,” Meisel says. “Otherwise, we will continue the downward spiral of fewer well-paying jobs.”

 

William Meisel is an industry analyst covering the commercial uses of speech and language-understanding technology. Meisel’s latest book, “Technically Dead,” is a novel that takes place in a near future, as predicted by his 2013 non-fiction book, “The Software Society: Cultural and Economic Impact.” Meisel blogs on related topics at www.thesoftwaresociety.com. He writes a monthly paid-subscription industry newsletter, Speech Strategy News, and organizes the annual Mobile Voice Conference in his role as executive director of the Applied Voice Input Output Society. Meisel has a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Caltech and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. He began his career as a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at USC and published the first technical book on “machine learning” (“Computer-Oriented Approaches to Pattern Recognition,” Academic Press). He has 10 patents, ran the computer science division of a defense company, and founded and ran a company developing speech-recognition technology for a decade

 

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