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Published in the Toronto Star,

Two things can be said about human beings: we like building machines, and we tend to freak out about the machines we build.

The Luddites of 19th-century England, an oath-based secret society, looked to the industrial era and saw not liberation but destitution. The most radical among them formed paramilitary groups to raid textile factories and destroy knitting machines and mechanical looms — devices that would replace workers. Their political descendants include the lamplighters of early-20th-century New York who went on strike to protest the advent of electric streetlights, and the switchboard operators of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, who in the 1930s took action against the rotary dial system.

Did predictions of automation and mass joblessness come true? Yes and no. Labour-saving machinery has proliferated at an astonishing rate, and entire professions — like those forsaken lamplighters and switchboard operators — have gone the way of horse-drawn carriages (and the coachmen who drove them).

But while we enjoy more abundance than ever before, it’s not as if we have more free time. It turns out that humans are remarkably adept at creating new types of work: managerial, analytical and consulting jobs. If the mechanical looms and electric streetlights and automatic telephone exchanges didn’t bring mass joblessness, is it likely that the new class of robots will be any different? Read More…