It takes one to know one

Truro Daily News - - OPINION -

The thing about sci­ence fic­tion is we al­ways catch up with it. Those fears about one day be­ing re­placed by a ma­chine have haunted hu­mans for some time – and they aren’t about to go away.

Carolyn Wilkins, se­nior deputy gov­er­nor with the Bank of Canada, mused about the pros and cons of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance and au­toma­tion. In a speech Tues­day to the Toronto Board of Trade she cau­tioned that although such change brings eco­nomic ben­e­fits, it also re­sults in a steady drain of avail­able jobs.

As many an­a­lysts have noted over the years, that pat­tern ex­ac­er­bates an­other dreaded out­come: even greater in­come in­equal­ity than we’re al­ready be­moan­ing as mem­bers of the labour force find what they of­fer is less and less in de­mand.

But long­ing for the good old days isn’t the an­swer. Wilkins in her speech added the re­minder that blam­ing the ma­chines isn’t the way for­ward.

Nor, for that matter, is the ad­vent of ma­chines any­thing new – although in the cur­rent age they’re more in the form of au­to­mated and com­put­er­ized pro­cesses.

When, cen­turies ago, our so­cial fab­ric was largely wo­ven from what had to be done on the farm, ev­ery­body who wanted work had some­thing. But any­one who’s worked stack­ing bales in a hot, dusty hay­mow in mid-July will be thank­ful for the ma­chines that took that job away.

Assem­bly line work wasn’t ex­actly a whole lot more fun.

Con­sumer pref­er­ences have al­ways played a part too. We might com­plain about the big banks get­ting rid of em­ploy­ees. But once they put in au­to­mated tellers, a lot of peo­ple stopped lin­ing up at the wick­ets.

The dilemma of los­ing tra­di­tional oc­cu­pa­tions has in­dus­try an­a­lysts and gov­ern­ments plac­ing ever-higher stakes on re­search and de­vel­op­ment and on high-tech in­dus­tries to fan the econ­omy.

It sounds good, a brave way for­ward, but we have to re­mem­ber that boost­ing techno-innovation and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will only hand more of the jobs peo­ple used to do to ma­chines, to com­put­ers, to ro­bots.

That’s the nub of what Wilkins iden­ti­fies as fu­ture con­cerns – fur­ther job loss, the steadily widen­ing gap in wealth distri­bu­tion. Some will profit as­tro­nom­i­cally with low-cost, in­creased-pro­duc­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties. But ob­vi­ously many won’t. It sounds dire.

But as more em­pha­sis in ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing is placed on tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance, what needs to be in­cluded is a fresh look at what can’t be done by ma­chines or com­put­ers.

Pro­fes­sions that in­volve coun­selling peo­ple, help­ing them im­prove their phys­i­cal, men­tal or emo­tional health, all the skills that re­quire wis­dom, pru­dence, a hu­man touch, those are not go­ing to be out­moded.

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