Solomon Davis is a sophomore journalism major at MU. He is an opinions columnist who writes about technology for The Maneater.
Technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades have touched nearly every bit of life. For the last ten years, much of the technological growth has occurred in consumer electronics, with televisions getting bigger, phones becoming more advanced and devices such as tablets exploding in popularity. However, the darker side to the prevalence of technology has resulted in the increased use of automation.
In 1908 Henry Ford’s Model T began production and by 1913 was produced via a new method known as the assembly line. The assembly line would allow faster production, automobiles to become cheaper and more cost effective, as well as lead to the hiring of more workers to man those assembly lines. In a span of 19 years, Ford produced 15 million Model Ts, a feat not many competitors could match, let alone surpass.
Fast forward to today and the manufacturing landscape is changing. In the century since the assembly line was first introduced, it has mostly stayed the preferred model of production. But now automation is not just increasing production, it is putting Americans out of work.
Tesla sought permission to use public roads to test a fleet of automated vehicles without a human driver present in it, according to leaked email conversations between Tesla and the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles published in the Guardian on Aug. 10.
If Tesla gets the permission it is looking for, it could be a massive step for the automation world and one step closer to job losses for truck drivers. The example of the potential damage that could occur can be found in the tale of coal, something that receives little attention when it comes to automation.
During the 2016 presidential election, President Donald Trump highlighted the loss of jobs in the coal sector, blaming the losses on the regulations imposed during the Obama White House, trade, offshoring and immigration. In March, President Trump signed an executive order that overrode the Clean Power Plan enacted under former President Obama. The rationale was that such a move would get miners back to work, but it could not have been further from the truth. Outside of the losses coal has suffered from the growth of other sectors, it saw a loss of workers even as production grew due to the increased use of automated tools and technologies.
According to a statistic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coal mines employed more than 250,000 people in 1979, but just 53,000 last year. The 197,000 jobs that have been lost since 1979 are a testament to the dangers of automation and how technology is putting the security of American jobs at risk.
During the election, the dangers of automation were largely left out of the conversation; it is a conversation that elected representatives ought to be having but are not. One day we will wake up with automation squarely in our faces, and, rather than having a plan, we will scramble for a solution. While it poses a great risk to the way of life for many, automation should not be killed or put on halt indefinitely. Solutions should be looked at that either minimize the effect on workers, create higher-skilled jobs that will not be eliminated or provide basic security to those who lose their jobs.
A possible solution to the dangerous effects of automation could potentially be mitigated via a universal income. Universal income, also referred to as a guaranteed minimum income, could be a way to ensure that automation does not hand a heavy blow to workers. The premise behind it is that every adult in America would receive some form of income for a certain amount of time.
This amount would be able to sustain them in the event that they would be unable to earn a job. If you happened to have a job, workers would earn a salary in addition to the income they would be receiving from the universal income. There are many versions of such a salary being touted as a possible way to offset automation effects. An idea is that such an income could be paid for by the very companies eliminating jobs with automation rather than the government footing the bill. It has yet to be fully explored, but has been suggested by many presidents. Finland has started a pilot universal income program with 2,000 of its citizens that will receive unemployment benefits in the near future.
The industrial age brought forth advances that restructured our way of life and brought many innovations that have had a positive impact, for the most part. Automation, while not yet essential to everyday life, has the ability to strike powerful blows to labor markets, and such a force cannot grow without regulation and consideration for the damage it could have on working people.