The fear that robots, or more generally smart software, will put us all out of work is one of the economic myths of our time. But that fear is misplaced. The real risk is that the robots will push too many of us into less socially productive jobs, especially marketing.
Consider the ATM. The widespread adoption of automated teller machines in the 1990s didn’t reduce the demand for bank tellers. ATMs made bank branches easier and cheaper to operate, which led banks to hire more staff, including tellers.
These tellers play a smaller role in counting cash and handling deposits than before. What the ATM machine did was change the job of the bank teller into one where they are more of a marketing person.
This shift toward marketing isn’t just about bank tellers. More legal work is done by smart software, but cultivating client relationships remains important. Some functions of medical assistants are being automated, but hospitals and doctors are still trying to improve the patient experience and reach new customers. Amazon Inc. warehouses use robots to pull goods down off the shelves, but someone has to persuade consumers to buy the stuff.
Machines and software are often very good at “making stuff” and at delivering it. But machines are not effective at persuading, developing advertising campaigns, or branding products. For now, humans perform those activities.
How much is this shift of labor into marketing a step forward? Marketing informs consumers about new products and their properties, or convinces them that one product is better for them than another.
But a lot of marketing involves pulling customers away from the other brands. More is spent on these business battles than is ideal for social efficiency.
The more a sector exhibits economies of scale, and thus some monopoly profits, the higher wasteful advertising spending can rise. As workers shift from serving tables to greeting customers, many diners will feel just a little more welcome. Going to the bank will also be a more fun experience, as tellers who used to count cash are now trained to sell us on how the bank is managing our savings. There’s a risk, too: Some of those marketers may look toward fraud, such as the Wells Fargo employees who signed up customers for new accounts without the customers’ knowledge.
Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of robots in daily life and in news stories, but not huge productivity gains in the published statistics.
Source: In a Robot Economy, All Humans Will Be Marketers
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