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Robots may have led to Trump’s presidential win, Oxford University study suggests

Donald Trump might not have won last year’s US presidential election if it wasn’t for robots taking up an increasingly large proportion of the labour market, according to a new study from Oxford University academics.

The study likens the current political climate to the UK’s Luddite movement in the early nineteenth century that saw workers smashing machines used in the textile industry in order to prevent their jobs from becoming redundant.

“Technology has created prosperity for mankind at large, but it has equally left plenty to ‘vegetate in the backwaters of the stream of progress’,” the report states.

“During the days of the British Industrial Revolution, a sizable share of the workforce was left worse off by almost any measure as they lost their jobs to technology. The result was a series of riots against machines. In similar fashion, robots have recently reduced employment and wages in US labour markets.”

The report found that the areas most affected by job losses as a result of automation were also those with some of the highest support for Trump’s presidential bid.

It posits that if robot adoption had been just two per cent lower over the investigated period (2011-2015) in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, then these states would have swung in favour of democrat presidential rival Hillary Clinton, giving her a majority in the Electoral College and a path to take the presidency.

It was widely reported after the election that although Clinton got several million more votes than Trump when taken on aggregate, his support base was strong in the rural areas which typically have greater electoral sway per person.

According to a previous study by one of the report’s authors, Carl Benedikt Frey, 47 per cent of US employment is at “high risk” of automation over the forthcoming decades.

Indeed, this trend is already apparent with employment opportunities for both white collar and blue collar workers decreasing in recent years. If the pattern continues, 24 per cent of prime-aged men are expected to be out of work by 2050.

“If workers that have lost out to automation do not accept labour market outcomes, they will resist the force of technology through non-market mechanisms, such as political activism,” the report states.

The report also cites another study that shows that US citizens feel a deep-seated antipathy towards robots and automation.

“A staggering 72 per cent of surveyed American’s fear a future in which computers and robots can do more human jobs, while 85 per cent favour policies to restrict the use of machines to hazardous jobs,” it states.

One solution to try and alleviate the worst impacts of automation on the workforce could be to implement a ‘robot tax’ similar to proposals being considered in South Korea. 

South Korea is already the world’s most heavily automated country, with more than one robot per 19 employees in the country’s high-tech manufacturing sector.

Revisions to taxation laws are being considered that would limit tax incentives for companies investing in automation.

South-east Asian countries in particular are at severe risk of job losses resulting from increased use of robots. Last year, a study by the International Labour Organisation concluded that more than half of workers will be at risk over the next two decades. 

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