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EDITORIAL: It takes one to know one

The thing about science fiction is we always catch up with it.

Those fears about one day being replaced by a machine have haunted humans for some time – and they aren’t about to go away.

Carolyn Wilkins, senior deputy governor with the Bank of Canada, mused about the pros and cons of technological advance and automation. In a speech Tuesday to the Toronto Board of Trade she cautioned that although such change brings economic benefits, it also results in a steady drain of available jobs.

As many analysts have noted over the years, that pattern exacerbates another dreaded outcome: even greater income inequality than we’re already bemoaning as members of the labour force find what they offer is less and less in demand.

But longing for the good old days isn’t the answer. Wilkins in her speech added the reminder that blaming the machines isn’t the way forward.

Nor, for that matter, is the advent of machines anything new – although in the current age they’re more in the form of automated and computerized processes.

When, centuries ago, our social fabric was largely woven from what had to be done on the farm, everybody who wanted work had something. But anyone who’s worked stacking bales in a hot, dusty haymow in mid-July will be thankful for the machines that took that job away.

Assembly line work wasn’t exactly a whole lot more fun.

Consumer preferences have always played a part too. We might complain about the big banks getting rid of employees. But once they put in automated tellers, a lot of people stopped lining up at the wickets.

The dilemma of losing traditional occupations has industry analysts and governments placing ever-higher stakes on research and development and on high-tech industries to fan the economy.

It sounds good, a brave way forward, but we have to remember that boosting techno-innovation and artificial intelligence will only hand more of the jobs people used to do to machines, to computers, to robots.

That’s the nub of what Wilkins identifies as future concerns – further job loss, the steadily widening gap in wealth distribution. Some will profit astronomically with low-cost, increased-production capabilities. But obviously many won’t.

It sounds dire. But as more emphasis in education and training is placed on technological advance, what needs to be included is a fresh look at what can’t be done by machines or computers.

Professions that involve counselling people, helping them improve their physical, mental or emotional health, all the skills that require wisdom, prudence, a human touch, those are not going to be outmoded.

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