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Automation anxiety dates back to the late 16th century

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
A look back at the “future of work” debate reveals there is not much new in what is being discussed today.
  • Sarah Kessler
By Sarah Kessler

Deputy Editor

“The future of work” is suddenly everywhere—which is an interesting feat for a 500-year-old discussion.

Today many worry that strides in artificial intelligence—new machines that can parse legal documents, diagnose diseases, drive trucks, and complete other jobs once thought too complex to automate—will result in widespread unemployment, just as, in the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I supposedly denied a patent to the inventor of a new automated knitting machine because she feared it would take the jobs of “young maidens who obtain their daily bread by knitting.”

Technology has, of course, transformed the world since the 16th century. But the debate around how it will impact jobs in the future has evolved remarkably little in the process.

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