What would happen if humans lost 50% of all the jobs in the world to robots? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Glenn Luk, Invests in technology and growth-oriented companies, on Quora:

What if humans lost 90% of all jobs in the world to robots, automation and technology?

We'd be where we are today.

  • One hundred years ago, the vast majority of people in the world worked on farms. The invention and proliferation of technology has made it possible so that a small minority of farmers (2% here in America) can provide food for all.
  • A little over one hundred years ago, there were millions of jobs related to the main mode of local transportation of the day: the horse-drawn carriage. All of those jobs building carriages, manufacturing buggy whips, raising horses and scooping up their excrement off the city streets. Again, progress and technology have all but eliminated those jobs, and here we are.
  • Seventy years ago, a little over 3% of the U.S. workforce was employed by the railroad industry moving freight and passengers around the country. Today, only 0.1% of the workforce is involved in the railroad industry, yet it moves nearly three times the amount of freight around the country [1].
  • As described in the movie Hidden Figures, NASA used to employ human computers to calculate flight trajectories that helped get our spaceships into the sky. Today the aggregate computing power of human computing from that era is dwarfed by the device sitting in your pocket.

These are just a few examples of how jobs and the nature of work has changed over the years, pushed forward by unshackling humanity's collective ingenuity to solve problems. In my view, robots (and artificial intelligence) are merely another chapter in humanity's ongoing drive towards greater productivity and innovation.

Dealing with disruption (better this time around)

However, before we all lock arms together for a massive Global Group Hug and embrace this Utopian future of unlimited abundance, we need to be ultra-aware about how disruptive change caused by new technology can be the root cause of global conflict.

I remember a time not so long ago when Globalization was praised by the masses, immigrants were welcome, new technologies and inventions were taking the world by storm and the economy was making everyone wealthy.

I am talking about the mid-90s. The 1890s, that is. Over the next half-century, the world underwent what is arguably the most destructive period it had ever seen. Rapid changes in technology ultimately led to massive changes in society -- everything from politics (end of the Colonial era to rising Nationalism), communications (the telephone), to culture (the rise of car culture), urban planning (the invention of modern suburbia), to shrinking household size.

Rapid technology change is disruptive and we need to be prepared for the changes. Fundamental questions need to be answered:

  • How do you deal with the challenge of equitable wealth distribution?
  • What should even be considered equitable?
  • What if robot technology is concentrated into the hands of the very few?
  • What changes need to be made in our current political system to adapt to this new world?
  • How does the concept of Westphalian sovereignty work when borders are no longer defined just in physical terms?
  • What if technological change happens even faster than we can predict today?
  • Etc.

While I remain an optimist, I do sometimes worry that humanity is not yet adequately prepared to answer these questions. Or that it will take explosive changes -- particularly worrying in the Atomic era -- to ultimately get to the next stage of human development. I think for as much time and effort as our amazing entrepreneurs put into trying to innovate and push human productivity forward, we also now need to spend time figuring out how society needs to evolve -- in as non-disruptive and human-focused way as possible -- to accommodate new technologies.

We have created massive wealth, enough to go around many times over -- and now we need to learn how to share this bounty in a fair and equitable way that also creates the right incentives for wealth creators to continue pushing forward into the frontier.

Related:

Note:

In 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, the American workforce totaled 44 million. About 1.35 million workers were employed in the railroad industry. The revenue ton-miles of freight moved by Class I railroads that year totaled 655 billion.

By 2014, Class I railroads carried 1.85 trillion ton-miles, an increase of 182%, while employing only 187,000 workers, a reduction of 86% since 1947 ...

... As a result of this staggering improvement in productivity, the inflation-adjusted price for moving a ton-mile of freight has fallen by 55% since 1947, a drop saving shippers about $90 billion annually in current dollars.

Another startling statistic: If it took as many people now to move freight as it did in 1947, we would need well over three million railroad workers to handle present volumes. (Of course, that level of employment would raise freight charges by a lot; consequently, nothing close to today's volume would actually move.)

Our own BNSF was formed in 1995 by a merger between Burlington Northern and Santa Fe. In 1996, the merged company's first full year of operation, 411 million ton-miles of freight were transported by 45,000 employees. Last year the comparable figures were 702 million ton-miles (plus 71%) and 47,000 employees (plus only 4%). That dramatic gain in productivity benefits both owners and shippers. Safety at BNSF has improved as well.

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Published on: Jan 17, 2018