You can’t beat them, so join them. That was the message Google chairman Eric Schmidt delivered Friday in a session at SXSW in Austin.
“Robots are replacing repetitive human tasks. This is progress,” Schmidt said. “It has a displacement component but eventually it makes us more productive society.”
While new technologies bring benefits, there are growing pains. Moderator Steven Levy asked if Schmidt feared a growing backlash against tech companies as their employees earn huge salaries and inflate real estate values even as they create products that sometimes replace the jobs of less affluent neighbors.
“We’re very very worried about this issue,” Schmidt said. “The data suggests the problem gets worse. If you look at the most recent studies of American economic growth, 99 percent of the people saw essentially no economic improvement over the last decade.”
Schmidt also spoke Friday of the “huge shortage” of programming skills in America. I’ve written in the past that computer science courses should be mandatory in schools. If we want the new wealth to be enjoyed by a cross-section of society, programming skills need to be taught in more places. It’s troubling that in some states no female, African-American or Hispanic students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science.
The lack of education isn’t just a problem with the young. Schmidt pointed to a shortage of sophisticated manufacturing skills throughout the Midwest.
“The new devices that are used to manufacture things require very sophisticated operators and the existing workforce doesn’t have those skills,” Schmidt said. Finding a way to work with the latest machines is a way to stay relevant in the job market, as economist Tyler Cowen has also suggested.
Schmidt warned that it’s not just blue-collar jobs that are at risk of being automated by machines.
“The same thing is about to happen with repetitive knowledge workers. That is people who don’t have a particular critical, creative, caring role.” He predicted that those who learn to work with machines and robots will earn more, and those who don’t will earn less.
While calling for short-term fixes to the tension in San Francisco, Schmidt’s long-term solution rested on education.
“There will be people who say, ‘Oh you know the robot took my job and I don’t want that to happen.’ You’re much better off organizing society to take advantage of that technology. America in particular, and again represented by people in this room, is enormously creative,” Schmidt said.
Google’s Director of Ideas Jared Cohen, who was also in the session, put it this way:
“You think back to the days of the Cold War, people who wanted to change the geopolitical framework of the world learned Russian. After 9/11, I remember everyone was learning Arabic. Think about the next language people need to learn: computer language.”
While Schmidt was optimistic on America’s ability to adapt, he voiced concerns about Japan and European nations.
“The economic structure and the companies, the culture does not favor entrepreneurship,” he said.
While we may not relish every change technology has brought to our world, the tide of development can’t be reversed. The Luddites lost out in the long-term, and so will those who fail to play nice with robots.