In recent months I have been noticing an increasing number of news stories and media commentary on the expected impact of automation on jobs. The basic premise of the articles is usually the same: that a large percentage of jobs that are currently done by humans will disappear within the next few decades as robotics and artificial intelligence develops and is deployed to replace them.
Here’s just one example from the Pew Research Center. In an article titled “The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training”, the authors write:
“Machines are eating humans’ jobs talents. And it’s not just about jobs that are repetitive and low-skill. Automation, robotics, algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) in recent times have shown they can do equal or sometimes even better work than humans who are dermatologists, insurance claims adjusters, lawyers, seismic testers in oil fields, sports journalists and financial reporters, crew members on guided-missile destroyers, hiring managers, psychological testers, retail salespeople, and border patrol agents. Moreover, there is growing anxiety that technology developments on the near horizon will crush the jobs of the millions who drive cars and trucks, analyze medical tests and data, perform middle management chores, dispense medicine, trade stocks and evaluate markets, fight on battlefields, perform government functions, and even replace those who program software – that is, the creators of algorithms.”
Many people like to think that their own profession is special, and it would be unlikely that their particular job could be replaced by a machine, but the list above covers a huge range of jobs; white and blue collar, low-tech and high-tech.
While there seems to be wide agreement that technology will mean the replacement of workers by machines, there is less consensus on whether more new jobs for humans will be created than lost. The Pew article cited above reports that in a 2014 survey, 48% of experts surveyed responded that more jobs would be lost than created, while 52% believed the opposite.
So where does LENR fit into this picture? I actually think that most people currently thinking and talking about jobs and automation are completely discounting the possibility that a radical new energy source could emerge in the near future. Many leaders today talk about a wave of “green jobs” that should be created to deal with issues connected with the environment and climate change, but they are thinking in terms of jobs connected with wind and solar, rather than LENR. A recent US Department of Energy report stated that in 2016 the solar workforce increased by 25% in 2016, and wind power workforce increased by 32%.
If LENR really does prove to be a viable energy source, and it takes off commercially, there should be a surge in workers needed to manufacture and install LENR power systems, and this could certainly add jobs to the workforce. If the power density of LENR is far superior to other energy sources, and if it is widely recognized as being inexpensive, safe and carbon-free, there could be a worldwide push to transition away from both the fossil fuel industries, and wind and solar, and a whole new industry could be born with many new workers needed to bring about this transition. Jobs would be lost in the current energy sectors, but perhaps surpassed by new LENR jobs.
There is also the indirect impact of a LENR revolution to consider, which could be much more significant. There are regions and nations where the economy is largely based on oil, coal or natural gas resources, and move away from fossil fuels to LENR would have a massive economic impact which would affect not only jobs but government revenues. Oil-rich nations are already dealing with the fallout from a huge drop in oil prices over recent years, and are struggling to fund basic government programs. Those problems could be exacerbated if LENR breaks out.
I am thinking here in the short term, but long term impacts from LENR could be even more significant. I believe we have not yet seen an energy technology that is as potentially revolutionary as LENR. Energy production has always been a labor and resource intensive, but from what we have been hearing lately, it could become a rather trivial thing in terms of cost and labor to produce massive amounts of energy, and this is something the world has never faced. Since energy costs are at the root of almost all production, we could really be moving into an age of abundance which could upend all political and economic systems and cause us to rethink how society functions.