August 17, 2016
A Glimpse of the Future in One Newspaper Section
By Robert Manning
Perusing today's “Business & Tech” section of the Wall Street Journal, I am overwhelmed. On its first page, a remarkable article about how China is leading the world in applying robots to replace labor. The article explains that a factory near Shanghai is seeking to maintain its competitive advantage by using small German-built robots to assemble electronic devices. Chinese manufacturers accounted for 67,000 robots—25 percent of all robots purchased in 2015—and projected that number to more than double to 150,000 robots annually by 2018. China has lost its cheap labor advantage as the demographics of an aging population create new shortages.
Then, on the same front page of that section appears an article about how Ford Motors plans to release a driverless car—without a steering wheel—in the next five years, to be used initially for ride-sharing fleets and delivery services.
Finally, on page four of the same section is an article explaining that a major cargo port, Jebel Ali in Dubai, is working with Hyperloop One, Inc. to study the idea of building a hyperloop to unload container cargo. The Hyperloop is a science fiction-sounding transport idea put forward by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. The idea is that people and goods would be transported in suspended capsules through miles of tubes at speeds of more than 700 miles per hour. Physics does not rule the concept out, though as a practical and economically viable concept, it remains to be proven.
I could go on and cite other such articles in the same section, such as Intel releasing a prototype of a virtual-reality headset. But you get the point.
What really jumps out at me is the irony that all this transformational technology has in light of the US presidential campaign. The major candidates in both political parties have turned the issue of trade into a bogey man—indeed a veritable piñata—responsible for all of America’s economic ills. But it's global supply chains, productivity gains, and technological innovation that will continue to disrupt US jobs.
Yes, studies show that the US has lost some 5 million manufacturing jobs since the 1990s, to a considerable extent, due to cheap labor in China. But there are always winners and losers in trade, even if trade is a net good for the economy. But currently, robots are increasingly replacing workers—blue and white collar—in jobs that mainly consist of redundant activities. China will not be the one replacing Uber drivers and UPS delivery trucks over the coming decade.
These emerging technologies highlight that we are having the wrong political debate. The real issue we must focus on is the future of work in the twenty-first century. How will we align education and vocational skills with the jobs of the future? How will we cushion the displaced with a social safety net that enables them to gear up to reinvent themselves to cope with new economic realities?
The future is indeed here, but we are looking with 20/20 hindsight through our rear-view mirror. For as that great American sage Yogi Berra pointed out, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you better be careful, because you might not get there.”
Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.