Andre van Hoorn horizontaal

Opinion: 'You have to take society’s unfounded fears seriously'

Artificial Intelligence can create art, detect early stage breast cancer and do accounting. So the idea that new technology might lead to fear of losing your job is not that crazy a thought. But how realistic is the fear? And how does that fear affect society? Professor of International Economics André van Hoorn looks into it.

“Technological developments are of all time, and so are the job losses that come with them. For example, does anyone actually know a typesetter or a lamp lighter anymore? But the extinction of these occupations hasn’t led to permanent unemployment. In fact, new jobs emerge all the time, like ux developer or influencer. They didn’t exist a hundred years ago.”

The idea that current technological developments, like Artificial Intelligence, will also lead to the creation of new jobs would be entirely logical. Fears about job losses would thus be unfounded. “‘However, it remains to be seen whether the jobs lost will be replaced as readily as with other technological developments,” says van Hoorn. For the first time ever, we are able to substitute both physical and cognitive skills - something long reserved for people.”

Andre van Hoorn portret

The impact of fear

However, Van Hoorn does not find the question of whether fear is justified or not particularly interesting. “The fear of automation may be unfounded, but that doesn't mean it doesn't affect society.” To explore what the effects of this fear might be and their extent, Van Hoorn has combined sociology and economics in his research.

First, he classified different professions by ‘automisability’. In other words, how likely it was for a profession to be taken over by technology in the future. He then examined people’s attitudes towards government policies.

“You can see that people who are uncertain about the future of their jobs are more positive about social welfare-related policies.” According to Van Hoorn, this is not surprising. “Just imagine you’re worried your job is going to be automated. Then it’s preferable that there’s a safety net. So, as the fear of automation increases in society, it may affect the political landscape, and thus how society develops.”

Facts versus perception

“The fear of automation can have an impact on its own,” Van Hoorn stresses, “regardless of whether jobs end up being lost permanently or not. It’s not just about the actual impact, but what people think the impact is too.” This creates a bit of a tough spot for politicians and policy makers, according to Van Hoorn.

“If something is objectively wrong then, as a politician, you can just chalk it up to being subjective experience of the people and do nothing about it. But the sentiment remains, which means it can still have an effect.”

Van Hoorn believes that going along with public opinion entirely is the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. Still, he is able to give policy makers and politicians a piece of advice. “If lots of people are experiencing something subjectively, it is important to take it seriously. Even if they might be wrong.”

Text: Myrte Nowee

Photos: Duncan de Fey

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