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Smithian insights on automation and the future of work

The number of ‘future of work’ studies, which estimate the potential impact of automation on employment, has grown rapidly in the past few years. They have, however, received very little critical attention and warrant closer examination. One cause for concern is the shortcomings of their methodological approach, which relies on measuring the technical feasibility of automating particular occupations and tasks. Doing so, however, creates an illusory sense of certainty and discounts the role of non-technical determinates behind advances in, and the utilisation of, automated technologies. Second, the way in which they frame their policy recommendations –as balancing an unfortunate trade-off between economic growth and unemployment – obscures the benefits that fuller automation may bring. This paper argues that these particular characteristics of ‘future of work’ studies invites comparison with the works of Adam Smith, who explored these issues in a closely connected, yet largely forgotten, way. First, Smith emphasised the role of non-technical determinates in technological progress and in this way paints a fuller picture of how automated technologies may develop. Second, Smith provides a normative perspective that would encourage these studies to see the potential of automated technologies to actually reconcile the apparent trade-offs.