Automation and the Worker

The popular belief that the new technology will replace human labor by robots is utterly false.

A top executive was in charge of an analogue computer for some time and one of his juniors told him that he was given instructions by the machine. This appalled the executive and more by the number of businessmen who believe that machine was in charge of the person using it.

Actually the new technology (though there will certainly be problems of displacement) employs more people and above all more people who are highly skilled and highly trained.

A scant twenty years ago, it was widely believed that the mass production technology yesterday’s industrial revolution threw people out of work. Today we know that wherever it has been introduced, it has rapidly increased the number of job opportunities in industry. But it is still widely believed that mass production replaces skilled labor by unskilled labor. We know this today to be a fallacy. In the United States, for instance, where mass production methods have been applied on the broadest scale, the class of employees that has been growing most rapidly in numbers and proportion is that of skilled and trained people. And the truly unskilled laborer of yesterday who contributed only his brawn has become the semi-skilled machine operator of today, a man of higher skill and education, producing more wealth and earning a vastly higher standard of living.

The technological changes now occurring will carry the process a big step further. They will not make human labor superfluous. On the contrary, they will require tremendous numbers of highly skilled and highly trained men – managers to think through and plan highly trained technicians and workers to design the new tools to produce them, to maintain them, to direct them. Indeed the major obstacle to the rapid spread of these changes will almost certainly be the lack in every country of enough trained men.

It is similarly not true that the new technology demands the giant enterprise, let alone that it squeezes out the small and independent and establishes monopoly. In some industries it may indeed increase the size of the most economical unit.

It is finally not true that the new technology brings a tremendous increase in capital requirements. Investment per production worker will, of course go up. Investment per employee may however not rise at all as more technicians and managers will be needed and there is nothing in our experience to make it appear likely that investment per unit of output will increase significantly.