A Trump presidency means an uncertain future for automation

Our future coworkers.
Our future coworkers.
Image: AP Photo/Vincent Yu
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The next decade will be marked by a major shift in how businesses operate: Chatbots could send receptionists the way of telephone operators, self-driving cars could replace truckers, and robot could gain more floorspace in factories. Researchers at Oxford estimate that about 47% of American jobs are at risk for eventual automation (pdf).

President-elect Donald Trump, voted into office on a platform of returning jobs to blue-collar workers, will be leading the United States for a large portion of this time. Yet he has spoken little about the potential impact of automation, which has the potential to boost some parts of the economy while simultaneously devastating others.

“I don’t think he’s thought about it,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank focused on science and tech policy. “He’s been much more talking about trade and jobs, not automation and jobs.”

It’s true. Trump has not made fighting or embracing automation a part of his platform, and has rarely mentioned it in speeches or interviews. Instead, he often blames cheap labor in Mexico and China for the glut of manufacturing work being exported overseas.

“My economic plan rejects the cynicism that says our labor force will keep declining, that our jobs will keep leaving, and that our economy can never grow as it did once before,” Trump said in a September speech outlining his jobs policy. He then went on to announce a series of measures, such as cutting domestic taxes and the tax-free repatriation of foreign-held money, aimed at luring manufacturing back to the US.

In fact, Trump’s entire plan seems to neglect the fact that automation has been a factor in America for more than 20 years, particularly in the manufacturing industry. Automotive manufacturing, for instance, was one of the earliest and most successful forms of American automation. According to statistics from the Federal Reserve, automation in the past 25 years has allowed the output of goods to grow nearly continuously, despite a shrinking workforce.

A recent UN report also suggested that automation will actually bring the production of goods back to the US—although not necessarily the jobs that Trump has promised.

“Increased use of robots in developed countries erodes traditional labour-cost advantage of developing countries,” the report reads, going on to say that businesses thinking about how to return jobs to US soil might save more by investing in an automated workforce.

And while Trump has talked about lost manufacturing jobs, that 47% figure from Oxford includes many other sectors. The group sees a high likelihood of automation in farming, transportation, sales, and service-related industries. Trucking, which employs nearly 9 million Americans and is ripe for disruption from self-driving cars, has only been mentioned in Trump speeches referring to infrastructure improvements.

The only time Trump has brought up artificial intelligence—a key component in self-driving cars, robotics, and chatbots—was in an interview with Breitbart in October 2015:

As for artificial intelligence, again it can either be a scalpel or a chainsaw. Creators and users alike should always consider the ethical and moral consequences of all activities. If we lose our way morally, we are doomed as a society.

(Earlier in the interview, Trump also likened the entire internet to either a “scalpel” or a “chainsaw.”)

There’s one potential bright spot. Atkinson does say that Trump’s tax policy would incentivize capital improvements on businesses, which could include investment in robotics and automation machinery. The policy allows businesses to expense capital investments; it focuses more on long-term growth than short, and is well-worn in the Republican platform.

But like most of Trump’s policies, we just don’t know.