Over a hundred years ago, as legend has it, man battled machine during the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Railroad companies had to burrow through mountains to extend their lines westward. Until the Industrial Revolution, men performed this dirty and deadly task by hand. They battled the dust and the mountain with 14 pound hammers. As the story goes, a salesman showed up at Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia to show how a steam engine could work faster than a team of men. Perhaps with an eye towards protecting the jobs of his fellow diggers, the mountainous John Henry volunteered to take on the machine.
The legend says that John Henry beat the machine, but blew up his heart in the process. And, thus, machines took over from man. In the long run, the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution brought more prosperity to American companies and workers than they ever enjoyed when working by hand. Now that the robotic revolution may be upon us, some are spreading the alarm that robots will take the jobs now needed by unskilled laborers and young people. History tells us that advances spur opportunities for the young instead of diminishing them.
National Journalism Center graduate Luca Gattoni-Celli reported this week in American Spectator that Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes took his cues from the "Luddites" who once smashed their looms, fearing automation. Gattoni-Celli writes
Kroft’s piece focuses on machine learning, which allows computer systems to use trial and error to understand how to process information and complete tasks. His main interview subjects are two MIT business school professors who published a book called Race Against the Machine in 2011. Their thesis is that robotic systems, which can be hardware or solely software, are fundamentally undermining the labor market’s recovery from the Great Recession. Robots are permanently replacing mid-skilled domestic (and, increasingly, unskilled foreign) workers; the rate of technological innovation is so high that workers are having trouble retraining and adapting to the changing economy. Though the story also notes that U.S. manufacturing employment has increased in the last few years, it emphasizes a narrative worthy of Ned Ludd.
Gattoni-Celli added that
The Luddites were wrong to destroy looms two centuries ago because technology increases productivity, and thus wages, but also creates new opportunities and industries that ultimately dwarf the short-term losses of creative destruction. It is this process of radical transformation that yields radical increases in human welfare.
Resistance comes not only from the media, but also the Obama Administration. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article described how academics working on developing robotic laborers argued against skeptical attitudes from officials concerned about job losses. Henrik Christiansen of Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing said that producing advanced robotics requires skilled manufacturers that only the United States and a few other countries produce. The manufacturing sector would expand because someone has to build the robots.
Increases in productivity, profits, entrepreneurship, and jobs will go hand in hand.
Writers of utopian and dystopian books have devoted thousands of pages to the potential altruistic benefits or nightmares connected to technological advances. Both extremes are wrong. History shows that with each major step forward that chances to thrive increase. Young people today understand, for example, the power of the internet to drive opportunity. Imagine yet another technological breakthrough on that scale within a lifetime!
Liberals, however, fear change. Growth of prosperity, opportunity, and wealth brings independence to each individual. No greater threat exists to the liberal status quo of expanding individual dependence and government control.
Stephen A. Smoot is Director of Academic Programs at the National Journalism Center