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Why Advances In Technology And Automation Are Good News For Human Workers

Diane Lim, Contributor

As a part-time yoga teacher, the headline in my hard copy of the Wall Street Journal’s “Off Duty” section last weekend grabbed my attention: “Wired to Work Out.” It came with a nearly full-page graphic showing people doing upward-facing dog on their yoga mats, with virtual reality goggles on and obvious wired and wireless transmissions running among their mats, their goggles, and even their yoga pants! It also showed the human yoga teacher wearing her transmitting baseball cap.

The graphic was not pure fantasy, as the story prominently features the $299 “Nadi X” pants, which gently “zap” the yoga student in various places to indicate where they should adjust the positioning of their body to execute the yoga pose better. This feature is supposed to substitute for the need for the human yoga teacher to do these manual adjustments on her students.

Given the advent of yoga apps and streaming yoga classes, one wonders what is the value added of the human yoga teacher if not even a “human touch” in adjustments is needed? Couldn’t this new-fangled technology spell the end of the yoga-teacher profession and my part-time hobby-turned-job? Is this just part of a larger “digital transformation” of our entire economy that will render human workers increasingly obsolete, even in jobs that up to now have seemed necessarily “human intensive”? Or is it an example of how human services can increasingly leverage technology to provide even higher quality, and maybe ironically more tailored and personalized, experiences for consumers?

Economists have been puzzling for many years now: why has the digitization—and digitalization—of the economy not (yet) led to the kinds of productivity gains we have seen with past major technological advances?

Perhaps the value of what we produce in terms of consumer and societal benefits is not as well measured by market prices (and hence GDP) these days. Many digital products and services that make us very happy are “free” or at least zero marginal cost. (Think Google search engine, iPhone apps, wifi internet and email services, etc.)

Or consider this alternative: As a May 2016 report by The Conference Board concluded, the “digital transformation” has simply not taken off yet outside the tech sector itself. Digital technologies have not yet been fully absorbed and leveraged within the core functions of most businesses, because IT is too often treated as merely a support or add-on function rather than an integral part of businesses’ strategic missions.

For decades now, the mix of what our economy does has been slowly but surely shifting away from producing goods and toward providing services. Thus, our jobs have moved away from the very mechanical and routinized production of “things” (which are the first kinds of tasks that can be easily automated and programmed), and toward providing “experiences” (requiring relatively more skills at which humans do better than machines). Digital technology may always be second to human capital as inputs into services.