OPINION: Meet your surgeon, the robot
Last year, I wrote a number of columns about how tough it is for blue collar Americans to get jobs that pay enough to cover the monthly bills. The federal government’s annual distribution of about two million employment authorization documents to newly arrived legal immigrants and to temporary guest workers has flooded the labor market with potential employees who can compete with or displace U.S. workers.
The government could change its course and reduce immigration which would be a big boost to struggling workers who’ve suffered through 40 years of stagnant wages. U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Purdue (R-GA) introduced legislation that, over a decade, would cut legal immigration by half. President Donald Trump has talked up the RAISE Act (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment), and more recently Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated his support. But RAISE is a long way from becoming law, and given the immigration debate’s conscientiousness, and Congress’ growing divide, workers would be well-advised not to hold their breath.
Still, in theory, immigration could be lowered. But automation keeps advancing, and no one in Congress or in industry is poised to slow it down. Much has been written about advancing automation, typically associated with factory production lines or other jobs where repetition is essential.
But in a recent New York Times story titled “Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?” reporter Alex Williams told of his two sons, ages 7 and 4, who from reading their night-time story books think that robots work for them. But Williams knows better, and worries that because of robots, one day his children may not work at all.
To some, Williams’ fears sound alarmist. But robotics and artificial intelligence are on the verge of major breakthroughs that will displace humans from dozens of high-paying jobs by the time his sons finish their costly college educations.
Williams offered examples. A child dreams of attending medical school, eventually becoming a radiologist or a surgeon, and earning $500,000 a year or more. Radiology and surgery are not typically jobs perceived as artificial intelligence-endangered.
But radiology jobs may have limited futures. Programs have been developed that can perform an MRI heart blood flow analysis in 15 seconds versus today’s minutes. A surgeon’s career is similarly at risk. Robots already can play a central role in assisting the removal of damaged organs and cancerous tissue, and a prototype surgeon is in the advanced development stage.
Other professional careers once considered safe but now at risk are lawyers, Wall Street analysts, journalists and even airline pilots. Artificial intelligence has made significant inroads that will take the human component out of high-skill employment.
In addition to employment-authorized immigrants and artificial intelligence clouding future generations’ prospects, population growth is also a variable. On average, the economy must create more than 200,000 jobs every month just to keep up with population growth. Keeping that Census Bureau statistic in mind, the much applauded November Bureau of Labor Statistics report that showed 228,000 new jobs created that month represents little more than treading water.
Something has to give. Restricting automation and population growth are near-impossible. But immigration is a function of Congress, and can be controlled. Future generations can’t survive the immigration-automation-population triumvirate.
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