For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Robots and Organization Studies: Why Robots Might Not Want to Steal Your Job"

by Fleming, Peter (2019)


A number of recent high-profile studies of robotics and artificial intelligence (or AI) in economics and sociology have predicted that many jobs will soon disappear due to automation, with few new ones replacing them. While techno-optimists and techno-pessimists contest whether a jobless future is a positive development or not, this paper points to the elephant in the room. Despite successive waves of computerization (including advanced machine learning), jobs have not disappeared. And probably won?t in the near future. To explain why, some basic insights from organization studies can make a contribution. I propose the concept of ?bounded automation? to demonstrate how organizational forces mould the application of technology in the employment sector. If work does not vanish in the age of AI, then poorly paid jobs will most certainly proliferate, I argue. Finally, a case is made for the scholarly community to engage with wider social justice concerns. This I term public organization studies.

Key Passage

Anxiety about technological unemployment is not new. It dates back to the Luddite movement in the early days of industrialism (Hobsbawm, 1952) and has periodically resurfaced ever since. For example, John Maynard Keynes (1930) predicted machines would abolish work within two generations. The same was said in the 1980s (Leontief & Duchin, 1986) and 1990s (Aronowitz & DiFazio, 1994; Rifkin, 1995) in light of computerization, even as others more cheerfully spoke of a tremendous ‘upskilling revolution’ with the arrival of post-industrialism (Drucker, 1993). But the situation is very different today according to recent commentators who predict the death of work on a mass scale. The 21st century will be marked by a ‘second machine age’ where artificial intelligence (or AI) absorbs not only manual work but also cognitive and non-routine jobs, especially those once considered beyond the reach of mechanization (Brynjolfsson & McAfee,2014). According to the McKinsey Global Institute (2017), around half of current jobs in the United Kingdom and the United States could be automated in the near future. In a related study by the Oxford Martin School (2016a), 57% of jobs in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) are susceptible to mechanization in the next 20 years, 69% in India and 77% in China. Unlike past modes of automation which centred on repetitive manual work, highly cognitive jobs are now vulnerable. Moreover, sophisticated AI breakthroughs mean that the low-skilled jobs we presumed were ‘too human’ to be replaced by robots (e.g. hairdressers, waiters) are also at risk. (p.24)


Robots, Job Destruction, Technological Unemployment, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Technology


Robots, Automation

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