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Our View: Automation creates anticipation, anxiety

 

 

 

Americans are fascinated by technology, including automation and robotics. We are also more than a little frightened of it. 

 

This week, polling by the PEW Research Center confirmed out mixed emotions about the subject. 

 

The polling indicated that while Americans understand the potential that automation/robotics holds for making our lives better, there are also some real worries. 

 

For example, 72 percent of those polled said they are worried about the technology replacing the work now performed by people and believe our government should adopt policies that protect workers. Seventy-five percent support policies that would limit robotics to jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for people to perform and 58 percent believe companies should put a limit on how many jobs can be replaced by automation, even if the robots can do the work better and cheaper than humans. Thirty percent believe their own jobs are threatened by the emerging technology. 

 

On a more positive note, a major of college-educated respondents believe that automation will create new opportunities or make their jobs more interesting and rewarding. 

 

Those mixed feelings should not be surprising. Throughout history, advances in technology have created a mix of anticipation and dread. 

 

In the early 19th Century, British textiles workers violently protested when new machinery was introduced into the workplace, which threatened the job security of skilled weavers. Ultimately, that movement, called "Luddites" was suppressed only through military action. 

 

Throughout the industrial and, now, technological ages, similar fears -- some justified, other not -- have emerged. The goal of all technology is efficiency, after all, and that translates most often into labor cost savings, i.e., fewer workers need to do the same or more work. 

 

Here in the Golden Triangle, the emergence of automation/robotics has been warmly embraced, both by industry, local government and by our educational system. 

 

In order to provide the skilled workers who will operate and maintain today's modern industrial automation, East Mississippi Community College had invested heavily in its workforce development programs. In 2018, the $42-million Communiversity will open near the Industrial Park. The federal-state-local collaboration hopes to ramp up the production of highly-skilled technicians to meet the needs of local industry. 

 

The idea that we are training one person to do the work of what 10 or more employees may have done in the non-automated factories of the recent past is a bit worrisome, though. 

 

While this move creates good-paying jobs, there will be fewer jobs available, a fear those polled expressed -- 72 percent said they fear automation will only increase income disparity. Automation will create both more "haves" and more "have nots." 

 

Those who embrace automation make two points. First, you cannot stuff the genie back into the bottle. For better or worse, automation is here to stay. We should make the best of it by making sure we are suited to this new world of automation. 

 

Second, if automation proves more efficient, it may well lead to more and cheaper product. It may turn out that the factory jobs lost will be gained in related field such as sales, transportation and service. 

 

In some respects, automation is still a new dynamic in the workplace. 

 

As such, we simply do not know the implications and are a bit fearful. 

 

That's understandable. The fear of the unknown has always been a part of the human psyche. 

 

So we continue on, hopeful and a bit apprehensive. 

 

We don't really have a choice, after all.

 

 

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