In light of Donald Trump’s now near-certain attainment of the Republication presidential nomination, Rice University artificial intelligence expert Moshe Vardi has come forward to discuss how the widespread automation of US manufacturing jobs has contributed to Trump’s popularity, and how continuing proliferation of job automation is likely to spur greater political, economic and social changes in the next decade.
“Job losses due to automation and robotics are often overlooked in discussions about the unexpected rise of outside political candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders,” said Vardi, Rice’s Karen Ostrum George distinguished service professor of computational engineering and director of Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology.
“Manufacturing output in the US today is at an all-time high despite the fact that manufacturing employment has fallen for more than 30 years and is currently around 1948 levels. US factories are not disappearing; they simply aren’t employing human workers.”
The main impact of this shift has been felt in working-class white households, a group that has largely rallied to Trump. Vardi has cited a number of recent polls and studies to display the impact these communities are feeling, perhaps most notably a 2015 Princeton study and a Washington Post analysis of Super Tuesday voting patterns.
The Princeton study found an unexpected, marked increase of suicide and substance abuse among middle-aged US whites since 1999, a trend that was even more pronounced among those with a high-school education or less. The importance of these findings is prominent when we consider the Post’s analysis, which found the Trump campaign performed particularly well in working-class voting districts where white death rates were rising and where median incomes, overall employment and manufacturing jobs had all declined since 1999.
Vardi said: “While manufacturing is the most striking example, there is considerable evidence that automation is transforming other sectors of the labor market, and there’s increasing evidence that this leads to economic stratification, the decline of the middle class and the subsequent undercurrent of misery that is driving support for Trump.”
If we consider the likelihood of automation continuing to transform large sectors of the market, we may need to consider where those displaced by robotic workers now go to work, particularly given their educational and economic background’s limitations. While the potential of robotics within the field of work is hugely impressive and indicative of amazing possibilities, it is possible that we are allowing ourselves to become blinded by such possibilities and ignoring the realities as a result.
Work displacement is historically a big issue, both politically and socially, and while it may currently be that the ire that results from such displacement tends to aim towards immigrants, Vardi’s argument would suggest that in the future that anger may well be more reminiscent of the 19th-century Luddite movement.
In order to bring more attention to the economic, social and political consequences of substituting machines for human workers, Vardi is now organizing an academic conference in December this year to discuss the matter.