mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Why I For One Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

Expect another bout of panic driven neo-Physiocracy as more people read this Economist article on the inroads that machines are making in the job market:

The evidence is irrefutable that computerised automation, networks and artificial intelligence (AI)—including machine-learning, language-translation, and speech- and pattern-recognition software—are beginning to render many jobs simply obsolete.

This is unlike the job destruction and creation that has taken place continuously since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as machines gradually replaced the muscle-power of human labourers and horses. Today, automation is having an impact not just on routine work, but on cognitive and even creative tasks as well. A tipping point seems to have been reached, at which AI-based automation threatens to supplant the brain-power of large swathes of middle-income employees…

Put bluntly, few new white-collar jobs, as people know them, are going to be created to replace those now being lost—despite the hopes many place in technology, innovation and better education…

There are several examples of how this is already happening:

Radiologists, who can earn over $300,000 a year in America, after 13 years of college education and internship, are among the first to feel the heat. It is not just that the task of scanning tumour slides and X-ray pictures is being outsourced to Indian laboratories, where the job is done for a tenth of the cost. The real threat is that the latest automated pattern-recognition software can do much of the work for less than a hundredth of it.

Lawyers are in a similar boat now that smart algorithms can search case law, evaluate the issues at hand and summarise the results. Machines have already shown they can perform legal discovery for a fraction of the cost of human professionals—and do so with far greater thoroughness than lawyers and paralegals usually manage.

While I have a healthy respect for the power of technology to revolutionize industries, guilds and ultimately whole societies, I do not think the robots are going to do to us what the mammals did to the dinosaurs.  The oncoming waves are going to challenge many of us to adjust, but the net effect on the human race is a plus.  We are going to be spending less and less time on the dull and frequently dangerous jobs that are required to produce the goods and services that we need to sustain our existence, and will spend more and more time as creators and cultivators of meaning and beauty.  (Also of shows like “American Idol,” but nothing is perfect.)

There are a lot of people who can’t believe this is true.  They are the modern day heirs of the Physiocrats, an 18th century French economic school that believed only farmers produced anything of value.  Cities and everyone in them were parasites living of the surplus extracted from the sturdy sons of toil.

More recently we’ve seen a neo-Physiocrat revival as people worry about that outsourcing and automation would destroy manufacturing jobs.  How, these people ask, can anybody in America make a living when all the “real” work is being done by machines or by the Chinese?  “Don’t tell us,” the neo-Physiocrats say, “about service jobs.  We can’t all make a living giving each other French and ballet lessons.  Somebody has to make something real or we will all go to the poorhouse.”

The first Physiocrats got it wrong about the farms.  Today less than six percent of the population works the land in advanced countries, and both we urbanites and the farmers are living much better than in 1785.  The neo-Physiocrats are equally wrong about manufacturing and about the other activities that robots can do.

What Physiocrats paleo neo both miss is that while the basic work needs to be done (the crops need to be planted and harvested, the stuff needs to come out of the factories), human society becomes richer and not poorer when fewer and fewer people have to spend devote those lives to those jobs.  Yes, a lot of scut jobs (and some white collar ones as well) are going to disappear, but ultimately people will figure out new ways to create value that will make them good livings.

We can’t all make a living planning each others’ weddings, neo-Physiocrats cry, but in fact we can — if the food and the other things we need are plentiful and cheap.  Value is what people will will pay for, and that can be ballet lessons and items for e-gaming; as more and more of the routine business of life isn’t needed, people will have more free time and be willing to pay people who can help them fill it with meaning, excitement, satisfaction and fun.

The transition from an old economic order to a new one is always wrenching — especially if you are the equivalent of a highly skilled spinner who has just been replaced by a mechanical loom.  And the shift isn’t just stressful for individuals; whole cities, regions and countries must undergo painful change.

But we can’t lose the big picture.  As Karl Marx put it in another context, progress is about humanity’s transition from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.  The less we have to work to produce the necessities of life, the more we can work to make life richer for ourselves and those around us.

Where the new waves of change pose the greatest challenge is at the level of policy: caught up in the blue social model and committed to large institutions that don’t make a lot of sense anymore, our society is not doing enough to retool itself to take advantage of the new opportunities while dealing as humanely as possible with the problems we face.  Neo-Physiocrat nostalgia for a dead world makes things worse, not better; we need the vision to imagine a new world, and the courage to build it.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Luke Lea

    @ “We are going to be spending less and less time on the dull and frequently dangerous jobs that are required to produce the goods and services that we need to sustain our existence, and will spend more and more time as creators and cultivators of meaning and beauty.”

    That same argument was made back in the 1950’s, except then it was conventionally phrased in terms of “automation” and “the problem of leisuire.” I personally have a different take which, I think, takes a more “informed” account of the realities of the human material we have to work with and of the true nature of material happiness, at least for those who may be inclined to choose it.

    Trading leisure for income and small-town pleasures for the stimulation of big cities ought at least be an available option, wouldn’t you agree, Prof. Mead? After all, not everyone’s tastes are the same and it takes all kinds to make the world go round.

  • Jordan

    Yup, world being taken over by software. Said it before, will say it again. Revenge of the nerds writ large.

  • tal

    What of AIs become better than humans at all mental tasks? Lots of people in the software industry and academia think this will happen eventually.

  • Kenny

    Hasn’t all civilizations been built on slave labor?

    In the past, the slaves were human; today, they’re our machines. The extraordinary high standard of living we have in the West is due to our army of slaves — like the one I’m typing on right now and the one I’ll be soon climbing into to take me in comfort many miles from here.

    The key to all this is that our slaves need energy — especially electricity — to sustain us.

  • FredR

    I used to think like this and then I read Gregory Clark’s “Farewell to Alms.” In one passage he points out:

    “[T]here was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.”

    You will say that people, unlike horses, can be retrained (and find employment in the service sector), but I see no reason why there will necessarily be worthwhile jobs in the future for large segments of the population.

    I think we’re already seeing the stress that comes from an economic system that can’t provide meaningful work (that is, work productive enough to justify some kind of living wage) to growing segments of the population. I suppose there was always a percentage that was basically unemployable, but such a category seems to be taking up a larger portion of the bottom of society than before, while at the top you have too many elite aspirants chasing too few elite positions (hence the rise in credentialization, the OWS protests, etc.)

    I think we are gradually approaching something like the (neo-Malthusian) crisis situations anatomized by historians and sociologists like Jack Goldstone, David Hackett Fischer, and Peter Turchin.

    I guess I agree that the ultimate solution is a fairly drastic reworking of our political economy, but such a task is usually fairly painful.

  • Gerald Owens

    Bah. I pursued an Artifical Intelligence PhD for the same reasons cited here: if computers were going to write programs for everyone else, then *I* was going to be the guy writing those AI programs that wrote AI programs. I left without the PhD thoroughly convinced that my Grandchildren would be able to work as programmers. The bottom dropped out of the AI market two years later.

    This is the periodic revivals in every questionable academic field perpetrated by older practitioners seeing the handwriting on the wall for their academic programs and needing the buzz to keep the funds flowing from Government and the school administration.

    Don’t get me wrong: AI expert system technology is quite mature, and all the examples cited by Mead are examples of expert systems. However, expert systems are good in narrow, highly defined fields with an existing vocabulary and set of rules of interpretation of results. The only thing new about computers interpreting X-Rays is the joining of image processing (also highly developed technology) to expert systems.

    To me, the real breakthrough will be language understanding systems, with the quality of the system being judged by its ability to perform machine translation between two different foreign languages: a good translation requires *understanding* the text, and current technologies are long on skilled contextual substitution rather than “understanding”.

    Comment #4 by Kenny is spot on: Machines have replaced human slaves.

  • Jack

    Fred’s comments are spot on.

    Real wages [i.e. accounting for inflation] have been stagnant for about forty years. If the transition from a manufacturing economy to a technological/service economy really portended a better life for all, one would have thought we would have seen an uptick in real wages by now.

    I suppose someone of WRM’s persuasion might blame this largely on the sputtering blue social model, but I have my doubts. I’m frankly a little surprised that WRM has such an apparently blind faith in progress.

  • Kenny

    Real wages may have been stagnant for many decades now but still our standard of living has increased significantly during that time, from 1971 to the present.

    And that’s due to technology with computers, data bases, medicine, robotics, and the like at the forefront.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service