Robots and Jobs, Part 2

Stephen DeAngelis

March 4, 2014

In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the widespread concern that the growth of artificial intelligence systems will create a permanent crisis in unemployment as they displace more and more workers. As noted in that post, Derek Thompson agrees with analysts who insist that the new industrial revolution is different than those in the past. Driving this new revolution, he writes, “is an invisible force that goes by many names. Computerization. Automation. Artificial intelligence. Technology. Innovation. And, everyone’s favorite, ROBOTS.” [“What Jobs Will the Robots Take?” The Atlantic, 23 January 2014] In the concluding part of this article, I’ll look at what pundits, like Thompson, are saying about the future of jobs, especially those that will be filled by humans.

Thompson asks: “So what are we [i.e., humans] better at?” His immediate answer to that question is: “Humans are, and will always be, superior at working with, and caring for, other humans. In this light, automation doesn’t make the world worse. Far from it: It creates new opportunities for human ingenuity.” He nevertheless notes, “But robots are already creeping into diagnostics and surgeries. Schools are already experimenting with software that replaces teaching hours. The fact that some industries have been safe from automation for the last three decades doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be safe for the next one.” David Brooks agrees that “we’re clearly heading into an age of brilliant technology.” He notes that “computers are increasingly going to be able to perform important parts of even mostly cognitive jobs, like picking stocks, diagnosing diseases and granting parole.” So, like Thompson, he asks the penultimate question: “What human skills will be more valuable?” [“What Machines Can’t Do,” New York Times, 3 February 2014] Brooks indicates that “some of those skills are already evident.” And they might surprise you. For example, “Technology has rewarded sprinters (people who can recognize and alertly post a message on Twitter about some interesting immediate event) and marathoners (people who can write large conceptual stories). … [And] technology has rewarded graphic artists who can visualize data.” In addition to specific skills, Brooks insists that “the age of brilliant machines seems to reward a few traits.” He explains:

“First, it rewards enthusiasm. The amount of information in front of us is practically infinite; so is that amount of data that can be collected with new tools. The people who seem to do best possess a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity. … Second, the era seems to reward people with extended time horizons and strategic discipline. … That doesn’t seem too surprising. A computer can calculate a zillion options, move by move, but a human can provide an overall sense of direction and a conceptual frame. In a world of online distractions, the person who can maintain a long obedience toward a single goal, and who can filter out what is irrelevant to that goal, will obviously have enormous worth. Third, the age seems to reward procedural architects. The giant Internet celebrities didn’t so much come up with ideas, they came up with systems in which other people could express ideas: Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc. … [Fourth, individuals who] can organize a decentralized network around a clear question, without letting it dissipate or clump, will have enormous value. Fifth, essentialists will probably be rewarded. Any child can say, ‘I’m a dog’ and pretend to be a dog. Computers struggle to come up with the essence of ‘I’ and the essence of ‘dog,’ and they really struggle with coming up with what parts of ‘I-ness’ and ‘dog-ness’ should be usefully blended if you want to pretend to be a dog. This is an important skill because creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.”

In other words, the best things for humans to concentrate on involve enhancing our humanity. Brooks concludes, “The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalized or neutral. It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind. Unable to compete when it comes to calculation, the best workers will come with heart in hand.” I agree that we have an enthusiasm for work; and, that is exactly why Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, is concerned that we aren’t expending enough effort creating jobs that satisfy that itch. [“Google chief warns of IT threat,” by John Gapper and Richard Waters, Financial Times, 23 January 2014] Along that same line, Martin Wolf writes, “Big challenges arise, then, both now and in the future, if we are to ensure the new machines do not become our Frankenstein monsters. These have big implications for public policy on property rights, education, taxation and other government measures that aim to promote human welfare.” [“If robots divide us, they will conquer,” Financial Times, 4 February 2014] Nevertheless, adds a Financial Times editorial, “It is not time to panic.” [“Automation and the threat to jobs,” 26 January 2014] The editorial goes to explain why the Financial Times‘ staff feels that way:

“First, the world has lived – and economies have prospered – through similar changes in the past. … Second, humans have a remark­able ability to adapt to technology. The race against automation pushes them to improve education and to create new jobs requiring human interaction, and the ability to innovate. In the late 20th century the educational emphasis was on science and technology; in the 21st, it may turn to a combination of technical and creative skills. Third, a reduction in the amount of work done by humans need not be a bad thing. Economists have predicted an age of leisure before; in practice, many people work longer hours than a generation ago thanks to instant communications and globalisation. A greater sense of balance would be welcome. If automation does eliminate higher-level jobs – still a big if – societies will have to adapt. It would mean thinking in new ways about how to distribute the benefits of technological advance, as well as the hours that humans spend at work. The nations that get the equation right will be the wealthiest and the most stable.”

I’m not sure that most humans would welcome an “age of leisure” brought about by a more automated economy. In order to enjoy such leisure, wages would have to rise dramatically even as work hours are cut back. There is certainly no indication that this will happen. In the United States, wages have remained flat for decades even as production has increased and jobs have been lost. I do agree that the nations that get the equation right (i.e., create the right kinds of jobs, keep their populations appropriately involved, and finds ways to keep economies growing) “will be the wealthiest and the most stable.” Clearly, that “equation” is not going to an easy one to find.