Like Robin Hood or King Arthur, no one is sure if Ned Ludd actually existed. English folklore says he was a weaver, who after being publicly punished for the crime of idleness, destroyed his knitting frames in a fit of rage.
By the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was driving major changes in the British textile industry. Skilled workers who had spent years mastering spinning and weaving worried that new machinery run by unskilled laborers would steal their livelihoods. Some protested by attacking and destroying the machines and evoking Ned Ludd’s name. The term “Luddite” has thus entered into modern usage as “one who is opposed to especially technological change.”
Manufacturing, trade, globalization, and automation were major themes during the presidential campaign and are certain to be hot-button issues for the new administration. A Pew Research Survey conducted in the summer of 2015 found that 65% of Americans “definitely” or “probably” believe that within 50 years, robots and computers will do much of the work currently performed by humans.
So are we to expect a neo-Luddite revolt against automation in the near future? Can such beliefs slow technological progress? Gordon Arnold, Chairman of Sierra Monitor Corporation, shared these thoughts on the subject:
“This seventy plus year old writer has lived through a period of spectacular evolution of technology and automation that has already been overly documented. But a vivid reminder of the impact of automation is demonstrated in the recently released movie Hidden Figures where a team of brilliant women and men who could calculate numbers to five decimal places in their heads are displaced by a new IBM computer using, God forbid, punch cards for data input! Adoption of automation and robotics is accelerating at a rate probably imitating Moore’s Law and human workers continue to be displaced from repetitive work by automation.
As to the question of a neo-Luddite revolt, I say it will not happen. Certainly automation, combined with artificial intelligence, will push robots further and further into the food chain. This continuous and accelerating change will enable, or force, workers to adapt to a new paradigm.
Consider the changes in the employment environment for workers in just the past 70 years. After World War II workers joined companies where they could apply their trade skills and they expected to work for only one employer in their lifetime and to also receive retirement benefits from the same employer. The workers did not expect skill requirements to change. Bi-directional loyalty was paramount in the relationship. The lifetime relationship is now history. Today workers join employers with little expectation of lifetime employment and in return employers show little inclination to develop long-term relationships.
One key reason for this major change is that skill set requirements change as technology changes. Although there are always exceptions, many workers recognize a need to change skill sets to adapt to changes in skill requirements. At the high end of technology, engineers learn new programming languages and adapt to new tools, at lower ends workers who cannot adapt move, say, from manufacturing industries to service industries.
While these shifts in labor are prevalent in each generation there is a greater shift between generations. Students are likely to recognize the ever-changing skill requirement landscape so they learn newer skills and then anticipate even more rapid changes than the older generations experienced.”