If You Like Technology or the Elderly, the Future is Bright for You

By Joshua Seidemann, Vice President of Policy, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

December 1, 2018

Over the past year, I have read several articles that attempt to assuage concerns surrounding the prediction that robots will soon replace people in many jobs. This evolution is not new; when was the last time you encountered an elevator operator? But, the explosive growth of artificial intelligence (AI) is fueling opportunities for machines to conquer tasks that were once thought to be the sole province of the human hand and soul. Even the lawyers need to be afraid (yes, we have a soul): DoNotPay is a free chatbot that was born to help people fight parking tickets, but which now helps users sue corporations. And, LawGeex.com uses AI to review contracts (DISCLAIMER: the mention of these services in this article does not connote endorsement or support for the firms or the services offered by them).

This represents a jarring change from the relative sense of complacency that has enveloped the human experience for the past 200 or so years. The Industrial Revolution certainly wiped away many jobs, but it did not wipe away humanity. If anything, life expectancies have increased while the impact of many diseases have decreased, and food production continues to gain efficiencies (for the role of tech in ag, revisit Cows on the Blockchain). As for raw employment numbers, one need only look at the latest numbers from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and consider that while automation may eliminate some jobs, the impacts over time are more about aggregate job shifting than overall job loss. The notion of “don’t fear the robots” seems to hold some water, at least.

However, the Industrial Revolution teaches us that automation can replace routine labor, and that the proliferation of apps and other innovations based on AI and deep learning are expanding the definition of what might be considered “routine labor” (DISCLAIMER: the preceding statement is no way intended to suggest that lawyerly contract or document review is “routine labor.”) So far, however, machines have not mastered compassion. So, medicine and elder care, both of which can be assisted greatly with technology, will still require human heads, hearts and hands.

For rural areas, this presents an opportunity. The median age in urban America is 45. In rural areas, the median age is 51.

To be sure, the robot revolution will have intense birth pangs. Over the past half-century, full-time employment and real wages for men without college degrees have declined. This illustrates the job shift even as current unemployment rates are low. A review of two books in last week’s Wall Street Journal proposes that the financial impacts of those declines have been counterbalanced by “means-tested government programs, declines in family size and increases in the number of working women.” There is, however, a sociological impact wrought by declines in what were, for generations, strong job opportunities in local communities.

A full exploration of this topic is beyond the scope of this blog and (as indicated even by just the WSJ review noted above) occupies numerous books, studies, articles, symposia and discussions. For purposes of this post, it is at least a good time to increase our exploration of the usefulness of broadband for increased educational and job training opportunities in rural America.