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3Q: Christine Walley on the evolving perception of robots in the US

Anthropologist touches on the history of tech-related job displacement and explores how other countries approach policies on robots, skills, and learning.
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Portrait photo of Christine Walley
Christine Walley, professor of anthropology and member of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, explores how robots have often been a symbol for anxiety about AI and automation.

Christine J. Walley, professor of anthropology at MIT and member of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, explores how robots have often been a symbol for anxiety about artificial intelligence and automation. Walley provides a unique perspective in the recent research brief “Robots as Symbols and Anxiety Over Work Loss.” She highlights the historical context of technology and job displacement and illustrates examples of how other countries approach policies regarding robots, skills, and learning. Here, Walley provides an overview of the brief.

Q: How are robots seen as a symbol when we think about the changing nature of work in the United States? 

A: In the media, there has been a great deal of concern about robots taking people’s jobs, but, as became clear during conversations with robotics experts for MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, the concerns have outstripped what the technologies are at this point actually capable of. For an anthropologist, however, the point is not that people’s concerns are “irrational,” but that robots have become symbolic encapsulations of much broader anxieties about the changing nature of work in the United States. These anxieties are well-founded. In order to put the technology questions into perspective, however, we have to confront more explicitly the dynamics that are creating more precarious forms of employment, particularly for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, who are most vulnerable to displacement by AI and automation.

Q: What can history and anthropology teach us about job displacement and technology and how this affects current anxiety about AI and automation today?

A: First, we have to remember that technologies are inherently social. How and why they get created or used depends, of course, on what people or corporations want to do with them and what legal, cultural, and institutional frameworks allow or encourage. From the point of view of the companies, they can be used either to complement what workers do in order to increase productivity or be used to displace workers as a cost-cutting measure. There is a need for policies that encourage the former.

My own research uses both history and ethnography to study former industrial communities in the United States. In the late 19th century, mechanization was used in many industries to displace skilled workers, who were more likely to be unionized and have higher wages. Our recent era has had a strong emphasis on shareholder value and what management scholar David Weil calls “the fissured workplace” — settings in which previously in-house work gets externalized through subcontracting and other non-standard work arrangements. Consequently, there is again a strong tendency to view workers primarily as costs to be eliminated. So, there is good reason for people to be anxious. However, we have to keep in mind that these are primarily political and social questions that need to be addressed, rather than anything inevitable about the technology itself.

Earlier ethnographies of industrial workplaces found that even with dangerous and repetitive jobs, workers often managed to find ways to take pride in their work and make those jobs meaningful, often through social relationships forged with co-workers. Ethnographies of deindustrialization have also shown how devastating the effects of job loss can be, including long-term transgenerational or cumulative effects on families and entire regions. These effects are found across ethnic and racial groups, with those of color particularly hard hit. The upshot is two-fold. First, we have to be aware of socially and politically destabilizing long-term effects of job loss. There is a need for policies that are better at minimizing this kind of displacement for emergent forms of automation and AI than what we saw with early rounds of deindustrialization in the 1980s and 1990s — particularly since the new jobs being created due to technological innovation won’t necessarily go to those who are losing their jobs. And, second, we need to be thinking not only about numbers of jobs, but how emergent technologies influence workplace sociality and what makes labor meaningful to workers — realities that are crucial to creating a more vibrant future economy that works for ordinary people, and not just Wall Street and corporations.

Q: What are some of the key takeaways, including policies, that the United States can learn from other countries in the way they think about technology, skills, and learning?

A: Not everyone in the world is as afraid of job displacement by robots or automation as workers are in the United States. This is not surprising, given that among wealthier countries the United States is an outlier in terms of its lack of universal health-care coverage and often in terms of other benefits and protections. Since health-care coverage in the U.S. is often provided through employers, it makes the possibility of being displaced by robots or automation that much more anxiety-provoking (just as it puts companies that provide health care at a disadvantage by saddling them with rising costs, contributing to the desire to save money by replacing workers with automation). In addition, the U.S. public school system is based on local taxes and is highly inequitable along lines of race and class, with relatively little spent on job retraining or vocational education in comparison to many European countries. Given employers’ need for more educated workers and given rapid technological change and job turnover, this puts many Americans at a strong disadvantage. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing declining social mobility rates in the United States in comparison to many other wealthy countries.

Policy differences make a substantial difference in how technologies are taken up and the impact they have, or will have, on workers. Some European countries, like Germany and Sweden, have policies in which workers select representatives who participate in decision-making on shop floors or even on management boards, increasing worker input into how new technologies will be used. Some countries, particularly Nordic ones, have also made social benefits more flexible, just as corporations have become more flexible, and are emphasizing continuing education and job retraining as technological transformation creates more job turnover. Although we have seen economic inequality on the rise in many parts of the world, it’s been particularly severe in the U.S. — and emergent technologies are poised to contribute to that. So, it is key for the U.S. to look seriously at what policies are working better in other countries and what we might learn from them.

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