A little robot calculates the fuel levels in home oil tanks. (Keith Halliday/Yukon News)

The Economist: The robots have arrived, and it’s not as scary as I thought

On a recent Friday afternoon, in the faint Yukon light, the shadow of my window passed.

It was weird, and he was headed to our oil tank.

I investigated and discovered that he was carrying a strange device: an automated wireless oil tank gauge. In fact, a little bot to watch my 24/7 fuel gauge and script HQ whenever I need to fill up.

If we wanted a Twitter crash, we could describe the stranger as a stormtrooper of global tech capitalism on a mission to deploy a job-killing bot. The goal of this network of oil tank monitors is, of course, to reduce the wage expenditures of the robotics masters.

However, my visitors don’t look like the capitalist stormtroopers type. In fact, he seemed quietly pleased with the capabilities of the new device. This meant that his teammates wouldn’t have to waste their time hauling a heavy oil hose across my garden at Forty below only to discover my tank was three-quarters full.

Think for a moment how cool this is. When my grandfather made firewood for a living in Whitehorse, he couldn’t imagine a computer texting him that a customer had run out of firewood.

He didn’t even have a landline phone, and neither did his clients.

Keep in mind that Sixth and Main were considered the edge of town, so the horses didn’t have to pull the wood sleigh away even if it was a small delivery.

But back to the robot perched on my oil tank.

Given the Yukon’s labor shortage, I suspect that laying off delivery drivers isn’t actually top of the line for robot owners. Perhaps they are having trouble finding employees and are looking for anything that will improve the productivity of existing drivers so that their customers don’t run out of oil.

This is an important change in the robotics narrative. Over the past 10 years, as buzzwords like automation, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things have spread across the internet, there has been a lot of fear of robots tearing up human labour.

In the 2000s, automation decimated manufacturing jobs in North America. Automation is also starting to nibble at other job categories. Digital banking means less need for cashiers. Online accounting platforms mean fewer clients for accounting staff. Automated check-out kiosks mean fewer people working in restaurants and fast food stores.

The robots were said to be eyeing jobs previously thought to be safe, from truck driver to medical picture assessment.

Critics asked, what would these people do to work?

Now, the big question is: Where are we going to find people to do the jobs we need? The population is aging. More people want to work part time. Others want to work at a job they can do from home.

A recession may be coming. Some chiefs believe that a period of high unemployment may change the balance of power from employees to employers.

Probably. But some economists believe that the next recession, if it occurs, may mostly affect job vacancies. This is where companies pull job vacancy announcements, but don’t actually lay off any existing employees.

Some analysts even speak of “labor hoarding”. This is where the company has had so much trouble finding employees that even when orders drop a bit during a downturn it keeps all of its employees on the payroll. Because, otherwise, he won’t be able to find any workers to grow again when the recession is over.

And then, after a recession, the population will still age. Transfer payments will continue to rise and will continue to create new government jobs faster than new housing can be built. This leads you to a Yukon with a long-term structural shortage of labor.

So what would this type of Yukon look like?

My new robot is the newest device in my life, and it won’t be the last. In the past few weeks, I’ve used automated tools to do a bunch of things that a human would have been involved in as recently as a few years ago. I rode in a subway without a driver. I checked into a hotel and got my key without seeing anyone. I bought T-shirts at a local store. You have booked an appointment for a vaccination. I bought a fishing license.

A persistent labor shortage causing more investment in such devices is likely to lead to higher wages, which will be beneficial to human workers.

Yukon employees with the skills to deploy, manage and maintain robots will be in high demand.

For companies, the story is mixed. If you have a profitable business with a good budget, you will be able to invest in technology. But if you don’t have access to capital, you won’t be able to afford labour-saving technology. This may put you at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the competitors.

For example, fuel delivery companies still pay drivers for non-essential home visits that must accept lower profits or be priced outside the industry.

This is also likely to be good for cyber security jobs. I don’t know what a hacker would do if he gained access to my fuel tank data, but security issues around other devices are more concerning.

After some natural fear in the early years, we may learn to love our robots. Especially if someone designed one that automatically scrapes our entries.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of youth adventure novels Aurore of the Yukon and co-host of the historical Klondike Gold Rush podcast. He is a recipient of the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist.


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