Brooks Rainwater is the Senior Executive and Director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.
Urban spaces are the testing grounds for the automation revolution. Will they destroy our jobs, or just make new and better ones?
Three robotic arms move brushes languidly across canvases as the glass eyes of cameras gaze ahead. The robots are painting a still life—lit with a tarnished black standing lamp—of a stuffed fox, a bird perched on a branch, a skull in the center, and a seashell to the side.
This summer in Paris, it is not only the clutch of international travelers filling the museums, but robotic visitors as well. The Grande Palais is hosting an exhibit called “Artistes and Robots” that features works created via artificial intelligence and robotic hosts. Elsewhere, AI-produced art is growing increasingly indistinguishable from the “real thing.” Since 2016, teams of programmers have competed in an annual RobotArt competition (here are this year’s finalists), and robot-made art will go on sale at the Seattle Art Fair this summer, alongside works that came solely from human hands.
This partnership between human and machine is what lies ahead as automation tools permeate our lives at a quickening pace. As many worry about the potential for robots to steal our jobs (or lead a violent overthrow of society), the reality may be more nuanced: They may end up being something more like creative collaborators, much like these robotic artists on display.
Estimates for the number of jobs potentially displaced by automation vary dramatically, depending who is doing the measurement. But it’s reasonable to assume that people in certain industries will indeed be greatly impacted, while others not as much. And it’s also safe to say that any mass displacement of workers would create a range of bad outcomes—poverty and populism top the list—that we can and must deliberately plan for now. We must re-tool the workforce, be ever learning, and open to rapid change to reduce the negative impact.
The urban environment will be the testing ground for these new technologies impacting the workforce, particularly in the transportation sector. The shift toward autonomy—whether with cars, trucks, trains, buses, or delivery robots on the sidewalk or in the air—is already happening. Projections for when these vehicles will be on the street at scale range from next year to the next decade, or even beyond. This being the case, my colleagues at the National League of Cities, together with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute, built autonomous vehicle scenarios to explore these changes and create people-centered solutions. First and foremost, cities should be in the driver’s seat, and these scenarios explain how city leaders and community members can shape the autonomous future—delving into mobility, sustainability, jobs and the economy, and urban transformation.
Overall, we found that “the robotization of the city” (as Paris deputy mayor Jean-Louis Missika calls it) may usher in job creation in certain sectors and make work more accessible to those who are now getting left out. A network of autonomous minibuses and taxis, for example, could help lower-income and disabled city residents who live in “transit deserts” and offer a solution for those who don’t have a car to travel to opportunities that are further away.
Robots could also help small mom-and-pop businesses. You may be imagining that a flying drone will someday deliver your burritos—it’s possible, but earthbound robots on sidewalks will most likely be doing it first. Such autonomous delivery machines could be a boon to local restaurants and retailers, allowing them to compete with Amazon in providing customers with almost-instant delivery. (On the other hand, these devices could also eliminate jobs for a lot of delivery people.)
The opportunities are vast, but it is up to us to make the right choices. To minimize job losses and embrace the positive benefits of automation, we need to focus on the great value humans first and foremost bring to the table—decision-making capacity, relationship building, critical thinking, and more. Jobs that are much less likely to be automated have strong soft skills and are in high-touch industries—think electrician not laborer, sales representative not cashier. Automation will also fuel the growth of nascent fields such as robot overseer and repairperson. And the increased convenience, lower costs, and enhanced productivity of these shifts should broadly benefit society.
It’s worth remembering that churn in the job market is hardly new. Does anyone truly mourn the passing of the elevator operator, iceman, or switchboard operator? Those who labored at these vanished professions—and many more—eventually made way for computer programmers, Lyft drivers, social media managers, and many other modern jobs that couldn’t have been imagined without the advent of new technologies. But what is new is the sheer pace and scale of potential job destruction across so many industries. According to one popular estimate cited by the World Economic Forum, for children today approximately 65 percent of jobs they may do have not yet been created. There’s a wide swath of new jobs that are still to be imagined.
Frankly, the kids who will be doing these jobs get it. This is the world they already live in, and their expectations reflect the reality that these changes will largely happen through a process of co-creation between human and machine. They’re preparing to live in a world that embraces the automation revolution as a creative partnership. It’s up to those of us in older generations to oversee this potentially disruptive process and make sure it’s a collaboration that ends up building something truly better, rather than just new.
As I strode through the Grand Palais watching robots and AI create art, it was hard not to ask philosophical questions about what makes “art” art. Our conceptions of what constitutes culture and work have radically changed over time. The 40-hour workweek did not exist, until it did. Depth and dimension in painting was not real until it was created. Vehicles that could drive themselves were a pipe dream for decades; now they rove in major cities.
This all speaks to the fact that we are on the cusp of radical change right now, with a story not yet fully written. Ultimately, the art on the wall, the music we hear, and the words written down frame our reality based on the values with which we imbue them. The robotic visitors will increasingly be with us in our galleries, workplaces, and homes, so now is the time to build a true partnership rather than standing against the changes happening all around us. We can shape how this future will look.