The real spin is whether giving people more free time is somehow an (un)employment problem.
In private settings, including meetings with the leaders of the many consulting and technology firms whose pop-up storefronts line the Davos Promenade, these executives tell a different story: They are racing to automate their own work forces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.
For an unvarnished view of how some American leaders talk about automation in private, you have to listen to their counterparts in Asia, who often make no attempt to hide their aims. Terry Gou, the chairman of the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, has said the company plans to replace 80 percent of its workers with robots in the next five to 10 years. Richard Liu, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company JD.com, said at a business conference last year that “I hope my company would be 100 percent automation someday.”
“People are looking to achieve very big numbers,” said Mohit Joshi, the president of Infosys, a technology and consulting firm that helps other businesses automate their operations. “Earlier they had incremental, 5 to 10 percent goals in reducing their work force. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’”
Workers aren’t being replaced by machines, they’re being “released” from onerous, repetitive tasks. Companies aren’t laying off workers, they’re “undergoing digital transformation.”
A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 26, 2019, on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Automation Agenda Hidden by the Davos Elite.