One of the biggest issues facing our whole human species is one that I have (uncharacteristically!) written on little: whether or not the latest and future generations of technology will kill off way more jobs than they will create. One big reason: I’m still trying to bone up on this question, and I’m still very much in the learning phase about the future of work – and especially work that will pay a living wage..
But despite my limited knowledge, I’m pretty sure that two recent articles on the subject are especially valuable for shedding light on dimensions that demand a lot more attention.
The first is a recent column on the Reuters site presenting a case for optimism that the new robots and artificial intelligence will turn out to be big net new jobs creators. Author Paul Wallace, a former editor at The Economist magazine, definitely makes some strong points. For example, he argues that too much of the research underlying the case for pessimism wrongly assumes that all positions in sectors considered highly vulnerable are equally vulnerable.
Indeed, Wallace spotlights a study finding that a focus on tasks rather than occupations can dramatically reduce the numbers of workers at risk – at least, it seems, for the time being. One big reason? Many seemingly vulnerable positions allegedly involve “crucial social interactions” that no hardware or software or combination (on the horizon?) can replicate.
Yet those possible qualifications I just mentioned point to one major potential vulnerability in Wallace’s argument – and in the study he cites. Both seem to assume that the technologies in question won’t advance much more – and possibly that they will never, or not for decades, reach the stage where they can interface adequately with human customers or colleagues. You don’t need to be a science fiction buff to understand the implausibility of that scenario.
In fact, recall that pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing displayed unmistakable confidence that such progress was at least theoretically possible. Why else would he have developed his famous test of whether machines could be genuinely intelligent, and even, by extension, conscious?
“Turing put forward the idea of an ‘imitation game’, in which a human being and a computer would be interrogated under conditions where the interrogator would not know which was which, the communication being entirely by textual messages. Turing argued that if the interrogator could not distinguish them by questioning, then it would be unreasonable not to call the computer intelligent, because we judge other people’s intelligence from external observation in just this way.”
The article also raises big questions about the quality of the jobs that Wallace (and other optimists?) are confident won’t be robot-ized out of existence. Some definitely seem desirable – like “designing smartphone apps that have only just sprung into existence” – although I still wonder whether sooner rather than later apps won’t be designing themselves much more efficiently.
But the other examples of safe jobs sound a lot like dead-end jobs – e.g., restaurant jobs, personal trainer positions, and tour guides. And I continue to struggle understanding why they’re thought to be especially safe, either, over any meaningful stretch of time.
Gillian Tett, the managing editor for U.S. news at the Financial Times, seems fairly upbeat about employment and automation, too, and also cites research purporting to undercut techno-alarmism. Like Wallace’s examples, it’s worth considering. Her summary of the message: “[P]eople are also working with robots in new roles.” But also like Wallace’s examples, it raises the question, “For how much longer?”
Much stronger is this point made by Tett: “[T]here is a burning need for policymakers to obtain much better data on what is really happening in the American workplace. Anthropological studies are small scale, while the macro-level data are surprisingly weak, partly because the Bureau of Labor Statistics tends to collect data through traditional channels.”
My contacts with the Trump transition team convince me that upgrading American government statistics bearing on trade and offshoring are due for a big rethink. The clearly surging importance of the latest actual and potential labor-saving technologies means that their actual and likely impact on the world of work demand the same treatment.