The documentary ‘Humans Need Not Apply‘ was viewed over five million times, the possibility of mass unemployment due to advances in artificial intelligence and robotics seems to be a big concern of the public, Silicon Valley giants and futurists alike. This concern is not necessarily a new one. Fears of jobs being lost to immigrants or machines have existed since the dawn of the industrial revolution. But these science fiction futures that both delight and terrify us remain elusive, productivity has levelled out and innovation is largely stuck at ‘good enough’. To explain why this is possible the case requires an examination of the relationship of technology and innovation to business competition and labour, as well as the political economy of employment.
Innovation is the result of careful planning. Engineers operate off of a set of assumptions and objectives. There is a problem statement. Dramatic innovation doesn’t just happen thanks to plucky tech-heads in a garage igniting runaway discoveries. Mass unemployment thanks to automation is not an inevitable linear trend unless there is also change in our attitude towards work. This is possibly why we don’t live in a Jetsons world of flying cars in the 21st century. We get ‘good enough’ when the problem statement is formulated within the bounds of the given and the assumptions are not challenged. Innovation driven by the competitive demands of business competition leads to ‘good enough’, not science fiction utopias.