Opinion

Andrew Yang Put the Automation of Jobs on the National Agenda

By Kevin Walkup
March 3, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

Andrew Yang might have dropped out of the presidential race, but his warnings about the dangers of automation will exert a lasting influence on American politics. From now on, candidates for the highest office in the land will have to tell us what they’re going to do about robots.

That makes it a good time to reconsider how we think about artificial intelligence, algorithms and other tech innovations that might change the economy, and our lives, forever.

Yang is right to say automation disrupts industries, with consequences. But Americans shouldn’t worry that robots are going to take their jobs, so much as whether we have the skills for the jobs robots will make possible. The U.S. job market has gone up and down without automation. White-collar and blue-collar workers should be more focused on learning how to use the latest technology to make their jobs as productive – and as lucrative and enjoyable – as possible.

We must admit to ourselves as a society: If a robot can do a human’s job, then a robot should do it. If it’s a robot’s job, then it probably doesn’t appeal to the higher nature of humans: discovery, creativity, passion, craftsmanship, professionalism, etc.

Still, people are understandably afraid of losing their livelihoods to mindless machines. It’s easy to see automation wreaking change at a bewildering pace while our finances grow more precarious year after year, and make a correlation. The ironic surprise success of a Silicon Valley candidate, Yang, built on this American frustration.

Big Tech hasn’t always tuned into this concern. But recent developments in the industry suggest that major players are stepping up to honor a tradition of re-democratizing technology in order to disseminate it on a larger scale to create new jobs and growth.

At International Business Machines Corp., the passing of the torch from Virginia “Ginni” Rometty to Arvind Krishna, slated for April 6, will coincide with Jim Whitehurst, now CEO of open-source business software developer Red Hat, becoming president. Rometty integrated PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting into IBM after a $3.5 billion acquisition in 2002. Krishna led IBM’s July purchase of Red Hat for $35 billion. It’s safe to say Big Blue is likely to be investing heavily into open source technology for their latest business solutions. The shift might lead to enterprise software that’s easier for everyone to access, creating a whole new market of users and customers.

MongoDB did something similar in databases: In 2007, they launched database technology that was easier to use than SQL. Database engineers didn’t understand why it was needed. They already knew how to manage data. But other engineers suddenly had access to better databases to underpin their software. Today, almost 40,000 companies use MongoDB, including giants like China Mobile and Deutsche Post, according to enlyft.

Software company Toast recently announced a $400 million round of funding for its restaurant management platform, which includes point of sale, online ordering, analytics and other features. The company aims to empower “restaurants of all sizes to compete on a level playing field with global brands.”

The irony, of course, is that we saw a similar turn in the early 1980s when Apple disrupted the computer industry. At the time, IBM computers were notorious for only being used by computer experts. Apple made computers everyone could use. The result was skyrocketing productivity and a massive new market that led to the creation of rival PC brands.

Open-source technology might advance that success in a way that will magnify users’ productivity rather than replace them. In the long run, Apple and other proprietary software makers benefit as open-source users integrate proprietary software into their home-built platforms.

The lesson is that markets exist for easy-to-use systems. Whether that is a mortal challenge to our livelihood depends on how we help individuals swim to the surface of the rising technology tide.

Kevin Walkup is president and COO of Harmonate, a data services firm serving private funds.

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