In the recent presidential election, automation and robotics got a slight reprieve from the accusations that it has been the key driver in job losses in the United States. During the campaign, the conversation shifted, thanks largely to then-candidate Trump’s masterful scapegoating of Mexico and China, while calling out trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as clear and present threats to U.S. manufacturing.
Indeed, the administration continues to downplay automation as a factor in the U.S. economy, because that explanation runs against the political policies it hopes to enact under the guise of improving the conditions of America’s workforce. On Friday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin dismissed the prospects of artificial intelligence and automation eroding the workforce. In an interview with Axios, Mnuchin said:
“it’s not even on our radar screen…. 50-100 more years” away. “I’m not worried at all” about robots displacing humans in the near future, he said, adding: “In fact I’m optimistic.”
But even as some politicians look to divert attention from the issue, public focus returned to the evils of automation. The New York Times ran a story titled “The Long-Term Jobs Killer Is Not China. It’s Automation,” while the Associated Press explained “Why robots, not trade, are behind so many factory job losses.” You get the picture. Technology is killing manufacturing jobs.
And there’s truth in all of these reports. Robotics and automation have been linked to lost manufacturing jobs in the U.S., and even the most pro-technology industry analysts would have a hard time disputing it. But that simple fact raises some complicated questions.
Are we living in historically unprecedented times for job loss? Or is this part of a cycle that predates even the Industrial Revolution? Is it possible to retrain our workforce for these changes? Or will the gap between educated and non-educated workers only continue to grow?
This exceedingly complex issue has no simple solution, and any attempt by politicians to villainize or sensationalize matters will only serve to further its negative impact. Industry and government alike need to take a long, hard look at the effect of automation on industries as a means of maintaining the United States’ role in manufacturing and innovation, while stemming domestic job loss.