What will be the 21st century? Many tasks will be handled by computers, which are already doing everything that is repetitive and that are able to learn and adjust, such as driving a car. The wheel will turn to the detriment of those who will have qualifications rendered obsolete
Robotics, artificial intelligence or digital (it is no longer said computer, it seems) are regularly presented as the next threat. All these devices soon as smart as us, if not more, will they not replace us and plunge us into unemployment. We can still blacken the picture by evoking the civil wars that will break out everywhere when the masses of desperate unemployed will have no choice but violence to express their suffering.
Technologies, because they disrupt our lives, destabilize
This is not new. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the emergence of new technologies has been accompanied by similar predictions. Because technologies disrupt our lives, they destabilize. Because they change the way we work, they worry. Because they are accompanied by a redistribution of wealth, they provoke exaggerated, sometimes violent reactions. What strikes today is how easy it is to forget history.
No more successful little shopkeeper
Car building chains, once voracious in labor, now employ a limited number of employees, many of whom only supervise robots. The retail trade is replaced by hypermarkets or remote sales sites, where orders are prepared by robots. No more reputable little shopkeeper, hello the anonymity of the linear or the screen of the computer. We will soon have computerized medical diagnosis and remote surgical procedures.
It is easy to conclude that many professions are destined to disappear. It’s going a little fast. Most will not disappear, but they will be profoundly transformed. For example, it is possible that the buildings will be made of prefabricated modules then assembled. The masons of tomorrow will work either to realize the modules, or to assemble them on the spot, by controlling the robots that will do the work.
One day, an idea – free
Every day at 11am, an idea to go out in French-speaking Switzerland, tested and approved
Two anxiogenic questions arise. First, is it going to massively create unemployment? Traditional masons will see their activity drop sharply. This is the usual effect of technological progress. Bootcars have almost disappeared, but we still wear shoes, now produced in the factory, often abroad and soon all made by robots.
It’s the workforce that limits the production capacity
This does not mean, however, a lasting increase in unemployment. The reason is a very general observation. The production capacity of a country, or even of the world, is limited by a single factor: the labor force. Give me a million people and I will equip them with means of production – buildings, machinery, infrastructure, training. Give me another million, and I’ll do it again. It is the means of production that adapt to the amount of labor, and not the other way around.
The labor market never works perfectly
It may be objected that all the labor is not employed. That’s true, but for two reasons. First, the job market never works perfectly. The more dysfunctional it is, the more people are unemployed. This is the explanation between Switzerland (unemployment rate of 4.5%) and France (10.4%). Then some people do not have the required qualifications, like traditional masons. In time, we stop training them. In the meantime, they must be reclassified. Some will get there, perhaps having to accept a decline in their income. Others will not, and we will have a temporary increase in unemployment.
The inequalities thus created
The second question concerns the inequalities that will be created. The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century replaced artisans with factories, more and more automated. Those who benefited from it were highly qualified people – business executives and professionals – but also those with no qualifications whose production lines were badly needed. Admittedly, they were poorly paid and the working conditions were painful, but it was better than in the agriculture they came from.
Those who lost are the middle classes, the artisans whose trades disappeared. In the twentieth century, the wheel turned. Activities have become more complex and less routine, administrative tasks have developed. Low-skilled people, blue-collar workers, lost and white-collar workers won.
What will the twenty-first century be made of
What will be the 21st century? Many tasks – not all subordinate, far from it – will be supported by computers, which are already doing everything that is repetitive and become able to learn and adjust, like to drive a car. The wheel will turn to the detriment of those with outdated skills, such as multilingual secretaries or white-collar workers in both public and private administration. Of course, anyone who can produce countless computer applications will be among the winners. But also those who are creative and those who have to react to emotions (for example, salespeople or security guards) and unexpected events (surgeons or police officers). Coffee boys who navigate around cluttered tables smiling should not suffer too much from the competition of robots.
An opportunity and a threat
Above all, it must not be forgotten that technological progress is both an opportunity and a threat. A threat to some and an opportunity for all. Over the last 150 years, the standard of living has increased tenfold in Switzerland. It had been multiplied by four over the previous two millennia. Winners compensate losers.