RIP Elevator Operators
Overall, automation is just plain awesome. I mean, the fact that my bathroom lights turn on automatically when I walk in is half the motivation for me to take a shower.
But automation can also not be so awesome. For example, a major concern surrounding the American workforce, pretty much since World War II, or even earlier, has been the very same automation.
But what if I told you that since immediately following WW2, aka the 1950 census, only one single occupation has been eliminated thanks to our robot pals? And that would be none other than the poor, sweet elevator operator.
There were 270 broadly classified "jobs" on the census that year, and all of them are still around and (mostly) still growing, besides the poor, sweet elevator operator.
What does this tell us? Well, turns out automation may not be the Orwellian nightmare we've all imagined. A great example, as pointed out by Ethan Mollick, is the bank teller.
When ATMs burst onto the scene in the '90s and '00s, we all assumed there'd never be anybody behind a bank's counter to judge your financial decisions ever again.
Sadly, we were wrong. The number of bank tellers has exploded since then, and the economics are surprisingly simple. Turns out that primarily, what automation does is lower friction for those employees and thus lower the overall cost of doing the job. As a result, bank branches multiplied, requiring more tellers and, of course, more ATMs.
A similar trend can be seen in the space of robo-advising. A lot of people just toss their money into a robo-advisory program, but banks have largely had to hire even more advisors to help clients operate and optimize those robo-buddies.
The point is that automation isn't the be-all, end-all, Wall-E nightmare we may think of it as. Robots reduce cost, allowing humans to come in and scoop up that marginal dollar, and this can be seen across the economy, from finance all the way down to real jobs like manufacturers.
So next time you see that adorable little robot rolling around the grocery store counting up inventory, don't be upset. Be glad that some poor 16-year-old kid doesn't have to do that job anymore, but now, two 30-year-olds can analyze its work.
The big question: Why can't we be friends? Will humans and robots be able to coexist peacefully and work together? Or are we still-for lack of a better word-f*cked?
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