For every invention we make, from mobile phones to online shopping, self-checkout tills, and driverless cars, we eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs elsewhere. Inventions are about doing more with less, allowing people to become more productive, and over time, the newly unemployed move into more productive sectors – from making buggy whips to repairing cars, for instance.
So perhaps we should be comforted by the belief that, as in the past, everything will work out just fine in the long term and everyone who’s lost their job will retrain to become a computer programmer or someone who provides services to programmers: to think otherwise would be to cast yourself as a Luddite. But the Luddites may have the last laugh, as suggested by The Economist’s Babbage; in short, whereas the technological advances of the past improved productivity while still requiring decent numbers of human operators, the advances of the future – most notably in artificial intelligence – could start permanently removing human operators from the loop.
The march of technological progress doesn’t create jobs: it destroys them. Dumb title, because, as the article suggests, new technologies create some jobs while ending others. What’s hard is getting reliable information about how many jobs go in each category. This article points out that Apple employs only 60,000 people, but doesn’t seem aware of all the jobs for other companies that Apple creates or supports, from the component manufacturers to the UPS and FedEx delivery guys. You don’t get a reliable picture of how these things go without making an effort to run all of the numbers, not just the convenient ones.