Automation is a race the United States cannot afford to lose
The United States has always been a nation of tech optimists. But just as the world seems poised for a tech-driven productivity boom, Americans have taken on a stark view of the march of progress. Growing fears that not everyone will share the benefits is causing resistance that threatens to hold back the nation. Resuming the bold attitudes of yesteryear will require more than rhetoric – it will require sweeping policy changes.
You would think the time would have come for Americans to come together in a common adulation of technology. After all, innovative mRNA vaccines are saving the nation from the biggest pandemic of the century and getting people back to normal lives. In the future, the same techniques could be used to beat cancer. Meanwhile, an explosion of innovation in solar power and batteries promises to dramatically lower the costs of preventing climate change; In 10 years, it will provide the country with energy so cheap it could trigger another productivity boom. And remote working technologies allow many people to lead much more flexible lives. Other emerging technologies like lab-grown meat, artificial intelligence, Crispr, and synthetic biology promise even greater wonders in the near future.
Many Americans are still techno-optimists in some ways. Technology is the factor most cited as having improved lives over the past half century. But in recent years, it seems that optimism has gradually eroded, replaced in part by skepticism and fear.
Instead of the nation celebrating the conquest of COVID-19, as we did with the polio vaccine decades ago, Americans have turned the vaccine into a cultural war and many people have refused to do so. vaccinate. Amazon.com and Google are still generally liked, but their approval ratings have dropped sharply despite helping most Americans through the pandemic. Pessimism is even evident in the art world: few artists bother to create positive futuristic visions like they did in the 1950s.
But the technology Americans fear most is AI. Most see automation not as a way to increase efficiency or create better paying jobs, but rather as an acceleration of inequality. Prominent politicians like former New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio have called for robot taxes, and even Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates has joined us.
This techno-pessimism actively threatens the US economy. The country quickly lost market share in high-tech manufactured exports.
To keep pace, the United States cannot rely on a cheap labor advantage; we will have to automate. The economic and political elites of other rich countries understand this. Although their populations are also afraid of job cuts, a number of them have installed far more manufacturing robots than the United States.
China has yet to catch up on robots, but it is trying. Meanwhile, some of its ports are fully automated, allowing them to quickly overtake decrepit US ports. The longshoreman unions, fearing for their jobs, are resisting the new technology.
Automation is a race the United States cannot afford to lose. But this is not the only race where we are late. In San Francisco, the epicenter of the nation’s housing crisis, unions have opposed the use of modular housing construction – a technology that promises to help cut extremely high construction costs.
Fear of vaccines, fear of automation, fear of modern housing construction – these fears are holding back progress, threatening to erode the country’s competitiveness and create shortages of essential goods. If the United States is to take advantage of the burgeoning tech boom of the 2020s, it will need to shed that fear and return to the techno-optimistic attitude of the mid-20th century.
But how do you do that? Americans need at least two big things to be confident in the ability of technology to improve their lives.
The first is security. With national health insurance and job search assistance, Americans would be much less worried about changing jobs. This would allow them to see automation as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Second, Americans need wealth to be more widely distributed among the population. The explosion of information technology since the 1980s has coincided with a dramatic increase in economic inequality. Technology probably wasn’t the cause of most of the disparities, but people can’t help but confuse correlation with causation. In addition, inequality means that many people do not feel that they can share the benefits of technology. So, for average Americans to embrace the future, we need to give them greater participation in that future.
Running beautiful futuristic visions and publicly praising the very real achievements of scientists and engineers is all well and good. We should be doing more. But without social systems that span the prosperity created by technology, we will continue to fight an uphill battle to get ordinary people to love technology.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an Assistant Professor of Finance at Stony Brook University and blogged on Noahpinion.