Reporter Journal / Chen Weihua

Want to know who really stole so many US jobs? Ask a robot

By Chen Weihua (China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-10-09 09:41

During a visit to a Shanghai hospital two weeks ago, I was amazed to see a robot, instead of a human being, dispensing medicine.

And then dining last week in a Cantonese restaurant in Shanghai, I was instructed to place my order by scanning a bar code on a device at the table.

In each case, I wondered how many jobs had been cut due to these new technologies being introduced. But I absolutely have not heard any complaints among the Chinese blaming technology and automation for killing jobs.

A survey released on Oct 4 by the Pew Research Center finds that Americans express more worry than enthusiasm about coming developments in automation - from driverless vehicles to a world in which machines perform many of the jobs currently done by humans.

The survey of 4,135 US adults from May 1-15, finds that many Americans anticipate significant impact from various automation technologies in the course of their lifetime.

Although they expect certain positive outcomes from these developments, their attitudes more frequently reflect worry and concern over the implications of these technologies for society as a whole.

Americans are more than twice as likely to express worry (72 percent) than enthusiasm (33 percent) about a future in which robots and computers are capable of doing many jobs that are currently done by humans, according to the survey.

They are also around three times as likely to express worry (67 percent) than enthusiasm (22 percent) about algorithms that can make hiring decisions without any human-to-human interaction.

By comparison, public views towards driverless vehicles and robot caregivers exhibit more of a balance between worry and enthusiasm.

Also, 76 percent of Americans expect that economic inequality will become much worse if robots and computers are able to perform many of the jobs that are currently done by humans.

A similar share (75 percent) anticipates that the economy will not create many new, better-paying jobs for humans if this scenario becomes a reality. And 64 percent expect that people will have a hard time finding things to do with their lives if forced to compete with robots and computers for jobs.

Concern about the loss of jobs due to automation is apparent. A study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University shows that 85 percent of the 5.6 million manufacturing jobs lost in the US between 2000 and 2010 are attributed to technological change, mostly automation.

This has refuted the rhetoric of US President Donald Trump during his presidential campaign that the US lost manufacturing jobs as a result of trade with China, Mexico, Canada, Germany, Japan and a host of other countries.

"America has lost nearly one-third of its manufacturing jobs since NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and 50,000 factories since China joined the WTO," Trump said.

While trade may contribute to some job loss, evidence has shown that it is not the major factor, when automation is factored in.

Yet we never hear this side of the story from US politicians, not from Trump or his 2016 contender Hillary Clinton.

What we have seen instead is the Trump administration's executive order to "Hire American and Buy American" as if the basic economic theory of comparative advantage suddenly does not apply to the United States.

That is certainly not true. The US has imposed a much higher cost on its consumers in order to save a limited number of outdated steel jobs.

If the US is so hungry for Third World manufacturing jobs, I guess the Chinese, and probably the Mexicans too, are more than happy to move up the supply chain and adopt more automation while sending those low-tech jobs back to the US.

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