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Don’t fear the ‘job-killing’ robots: Remembering the power of creative service

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As Americans face increasing pressures of economic change and uncertainty, many have relished in a range of renewed nostalgias, whether recalling the blissful security of post-war industrialism or the rise of the Great Society and the prowess of the administrative state.

Meanwhile, economic progress continues at a break-neck pace.

Indeed, as politicians attempt to prevent or subvert economic change by squabbling over wage minimums, salary caps, trade barriers, and a host of regulatory fixings, entrepreneurs and innovators are accelerating with a subversion of their own: learning to do less with more. As symbolized by President Obama’s famous lament about job-killing ATM machines, we live in an age where new competitive pressures are met with new efficiencies with astonishing speed.

For example, Amazon recently showcased plans for the roll-out of its new convenience store concept, in which cashiers will be completely replaced by new “artificial intelligence-powered technology”:

No sooner was the concept hailed as “the next major job killer” than we learned about the next iteration: a supermarket-sized store run almost entirely by robots, leaving room for as few as three human employees. According to an inside source quoted in The New York Post, Amazon will continue to “utilize technology to minimize labor”:

Job-cutting technology isn’t new for Amazon, which has increasingly used robots to automate its distribution warehouses. More recently, it has been pioneering the use of drones to deliver packages instead of humans, and even filing patents for unmanned blimps that would serve as flying warehouses.

In the case of Amazon’s automated retail prototype, a half-dozen workers could staff an average location. A manager’s duties would include signing up customers for the “Amazon Fresh” grocery service. Another worker would restock shelves, and still another two would be stationed at “drive-thru” windows for customers picking up their groceries, fast-food style…With the bare-bones payroll, the boost to profits could be huge. Indeed, the prototype being discussed calls for operating profit margins north of 20 percent. That compares with an industry average of just 1.7 percent, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

Upon hearing such news, Luddites of varying persuasions will surely be tempted to instigate the garden-variety protective and coercive measures to slow or halt the pace of innovation. Yet to do so will only delay or exacerbate the inevitable.

Instead, we’d do well to remember that doing less with more also means having more time and resources for…more. The data continues to demonstrate that technology creates more jobs than it destroys, and we’d do well to seize on that reality with optimism and a thirst for the next opportunity for creative service.

That optimism requires more than just a change in attitude or orientation if we hope for the fruits to endure. As researchers like economist Tyler Cowen have explained, our vocational priorities need a drastic rehaul if we hope for our skills and study to apply in the economic order. “Increasingly, machines are providing not only the brawn but the brains, too, and that raises the question of where humans fit into this picture,” Cowen writes. “Who will prosper and who won’t in this new kind of machine economy?”

According to Cowen, the future looks bright…for a particular types of people with particular sets of skills: the “conscientious,” “motivators,” “people who listen to computers,” “people with a marketing touch,” managers, “people with delicate feelings,” and a range of others. As Michael Hendrix summarized here on the blog, such a future requires a new mindset of mobility and adaptation:

Who will prosper indeed? If you are highly-skilled at the things that are in demand today, are a capital-owner, or are a superstar in your field, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. The rest of us will fight over the scraps — that is, until organizational innovations and broader human capital developments are able to re-wire the economy so that average workers can thrive again.

How do we stay among the winners? By building on our intuition and creativity—two things that, placed in the right sphere, remain immensely valuable. We must also recognize the intense global competition each of us faces as a worker. We mustn’t just work—we have to work hard. Unfortunately, too many members of my own generation [millennials] can’t seem to wrap their minds around that reality.

As Christians, especially, we should remember that adapting to economic change is fundamentally about adapting to human needs, and aligning the cultivation of our minds and the toil of our hands with love for and service to our neighbors. Rather than nostalgic pining for ages and economies past, we can move forward — not by manipulation via the levers of government power, but by building on our God-given intuition and creativity, staying pro-active in our response to the shifts that are sure to come.

As artificial intelligence and the subsequent technology continues to improve, we needn’t be fearful of our own position and power. We are not mere machines, but creative and imaginative human persons created in the image of a creative God, fully capable of adapting, mobilizing, innovating our modes of service to be in line with his love and purposes.

When the economic conditions change, the voice of God will speak, the Spirit will comfort, wisdom will come, and we can move forward energetically and creatively, leaning not on our own understanding. We may think that certain forms of such destruction signal our end, but when we align our hands to anticipate the dynamism of a new set of needs, the ultimate solution may surprise us after all.

Photo: “Danbo Was Once Lost but He Has Now Seen The Light” by Daniel Lee, CC BY-ND 2.0

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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