Editorial Board

Automation Trepidation

Robots will be great. Except for the workers they displace.

Getting to know our new robot overlords.

Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

Decades from now, when historians look back on 2016, they’ll of course take note of the momentous votes on both sides of the Atlantic. But if they’re interested in symbolism, they might find that an even more profound turning point occurred over the English countryside in early December, when a little flying robot buzzed though the air, alighted on a lawn and gently deposited a package for a happy customer.

It was the first real-world drone delivery for Amazon.com. And it offered a bracing glimpse of the glories -- and anxieties -- of the economy of the future.

Drone delivery still faces formidable obstacles, regulatory and technical. But it’s part of an accelerating evolution toward automation. Taxis drive themselves. Chatbots offer customer service. Robots bag groceries, flip burgers, harvest crops, and mine ore. Amazon employs some 30,000 of them, trundling through its warehouses.

All this is progress. Automation should make life better for consumers, reduce costs, stimulate demand and increase growth. It should raise productivity and boost wages for those who can take advantage of it. Intriguingly, it could improve problem-solving skills, unleash creativity and spur yet more innovation. History suggests it will create many more jobs than it destroys.

None of this is much comfort to the taxi drivers and grocery baggers who will need to find other work -- or to the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the U.S. delivery business who may be eyeing Amazon’s drones with trepidation. These workers may see the promise of  automation as unstable employment and stagnant wages.

As it happens, the same day that Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, announced the drone delivery, he visited Trump Tower in New York, one of many grandees invited to meet the president-elect to discuss how Silicon Valley and Washington might work together. Easing the drawbacks of automation ought to be high on their agenda -- because it seems likely to become a defining political issue in the years ahead.

The dislocations of this new technology will be more than economic, but the most urgent challenge, private and public, is retraining the workforce. Research suggests that future workers will need to learn new skills quickly -- either by finding new fields of work, or by mastering new tasks within the same occupation. The key is to make the process cheaper and easier, and more cooperation between business and government would help.

Technology itself can be part of the solution. Some tech companies are issuing "nanodegrees" for workers who want to continually renew their skills, for instance. Other options for online education and training are proliferating, but are of variable quality. Government certifications might help students choose wisely among such programs, and give potential employers confidence when they see them on a resume.

Other companies are looking at how artificial intelligence and virtual reality can help customize education. Their work could help governments set new standards for vocational training, apprenticeship programs and community colleges. It could also help them update curricula to encourage traits -- such as adaptability and creative thinking -- that prepare students for careers in which retraining is a fact of life.

All this, though, is just a start. The automated future -- with drones overhead and robots underfoot -- may require rethinking everything from immigration to regulation, taxes to social welfare. Responding to its disruptions, good and bad, will require a lot of cooperation and creativity. Good luck, humans.

    --Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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