Robots and Labor (Continued)

Published January 24th, 2014 -  - 01.24.1413


The Financial Times (behind paywall) reports on a speech by Google’s Eric Schmidt on the effects of robot technology on labor, in which Schmidt says:

“There is quite a bit of research that middle class jobs that are relatively highly skilled are being automated out,” he said. The auto industry was an example of robots being able to produce higher quality products, he added.  New technologies were creating “lots of part-time work and growth in caring and creative industries . . . [but] the problem is that the middle class jobs are being replaced by service jobs,” the Google chairman said. . . . “It is pretty clear that work is changing and the classic nine to five job is going to have to be redefined,” he said. “Without significant encouragement, this will get worse and worse.”

This theme – how automated technologies affect labor prospects – is the subject of a new book by Brynjolfsson and McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.  (Another recent book on the topic worth reading is Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over.)

Ken Anderson has a nice post at Volokh on this topic:

[A] familiar debate has broken out – around the employment effects that are likely to come from these new technologies. (The Economist magazine summarizes the debate and comments in this week’s edition.)  On the one hand, innovative, disruptive technological change is nothing new.  The result has always been short-to-medium term creative destruction, sometimes including the destruction of whole occupational categories – followed by longer term job growth enabled by the new technologies or the increased wealth they create.

In any case, over the long run, increases in the standard of living can only come through innovation and technological advance that allows greater economic output to be extracted from the same or smaller labor input.  In a world of many elderly, retired Baby Boomers and historically smaller worker base bearing much of the cost of the elderly living and health care costs, that has to matter a great deal.  Ben Miller and Robert D. Atkinson make the positive case for automation and robotics along these lines in a September 2013 report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Are Robots Taking Our Jobs, or Making Them?  

On the other hand, maybe this time is different.  That’s what  MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argued in their 2012 book, Race Against the Machine, and reprise in a more nuanced way in their new book, released last week,The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Machines.   Maybe “brilliant machines” will replace many workers – permanently.  Even without making sci-fi leaps of imagination for the capabilities of the short-to-medium term “artificial intelligence,” the emerging machines (as their designers intend them) aim to be not just “disembodied” AI computers, but instead genuine “robots,” possessed of mechanical capabilities for movement and mobility, and sensors, both of which are advancing rapidly technologies – not just AI computational abilities.  Perhaps this combination – the AI robot able to enter and interact in ordinary human social spaces – does signify a break from our past experiences of innovation as (eventual) producer of net new jobs over time.  Maybe significant new categories of work don’t emerge this time around – because as soon as one does, someone (or some thing) breaks it down into an algorithm, and then comes up with mechanical devices and sensors capable of executing the task – intelligently.  As aBabbage column in the Economist put it several years ago, in this scenario, capital becomes labor.

Anderson is skeptical that “this time is different” but not exactly optimistic about employment trends for workers who can’t “leverage the productivity of the machine”:

The “this time is different” view seems to me overstated – as so often the case with AI, as Gary Marcus has noted.    One should never rule out paradigm shifting advances, but so far as I can tell, the conceptual pathways as laid down for AI today are not going to lead – even over the long-run – to what sci-fi has already given us in imagination.  Siri is not “Her” – as even Siri herself noted in a recent Tweet.  For the future we can foresee, in the short-to-medium term, we’ll be more likely to have machines that (as ever) extend, but do not replace, human capabilities; in other cases, human capabilities will extend the machines.  The foreseeable future, I suspect, remains the process (long underway) of tag-teaming humans and machines.  Which is to say (mostly), same as it ever was.

The significant new job categories (I speculate) run toward skilled manual labor of a new kind. The “maker movement”; new US manufacturing trends toward highly automated, but still human-run and staffed factories; new high technology, but still human-controlled, energy exploitation such as fracking; complex and crucial robotic machines under the supervision of nurses whose whole new skill sets put them in a new job category we might call nursing technologist – these are the areas of work that point the way forward.

Quasi-manual labor – but highly skilled, highly value-added, and value-added because it services the machines.  Or as economist Tyler Cowen put it in his 2013 Average Is Over, the next generation of workers will be defined by their relationships with the machine:  You can do very well if you are able to use technology to leverage your own productivity.  You can also do very well if you are able to use your human skills to leverage the productivity of the machine.  If you can’t do either, though, you might gradually fall into a welfare-supported underclass – because the world of work, even apparently merely “manual” labor, is largely out of your reach.

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