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December 21, 2014


My followers know that I frequently point to robots and advances in Artificial Intelligence as drags on employment of humans. This is not in keeping with the standard view of most economists who say that, just as buggy-makers and buggy whips gave way to automobile factories and internal combustion engines, technology creates as many jobs as it destroys. That may have been true in the days of the Luddites, displaced workers who destroyed looms that made textiles in the run-up to the Industrial Revolution in England, but I think a loom and a robot endowed with artificial intelligence are two different things with different capacities to displace human employment.

The invention and use of the loom was limited to the production of textiles, whereas AI can be used in any number of applications, thus (in my view) not only displacing ordinary human labor but even displacing sophisticated human labor. Thus, in addition to making many routine jobs obsolete, robots and AI are also now employed in doing robotic surgery, self-driving vehicles, piloting of airplanes, automated anesthesiology, telemarketing, online ad sales etc.

Those who argue that humans displaced by such new technologies can go on to find other jobs that enable them to become more productive are, in my view, whistling in the dark. Just what “new jobs” other than working up new and better software to further displace human labor are they talking about, and how many of such a displaced human labor force  of perhaps millions are trained and capable of working in such a Silicon Valley environment? If they are so trained and capable and there are openings in Silicon Valley and other such centers of innovation, then presumably they’re already working there or on similar projects around the country. What about the truck drivers and taxi operators who will be displaced by self-driving vehicles who have no idea of even what the word “algorithm” means? Where do they find work in an economy where the population is increasing but job opportunities are or will soon be disappearing at an accelerated rate, both variables moving in opposite directions?

I have written on this conundrum before and have concluded that we are going to have to reverse our old views based on the Protestant ethic of earning our bread by the sweat of our brow(s), end our antipathy to welfare etc., since it appears that there will be billions of people world-wide who will not be working because there is such a mismatch between skills needed and skills possessed with no jobs (other than those in AI) available for the masses. The old right wing tactic of blaming the poor for being poor will evaporate in an era where (literally) no jobs are available. Whether capitalism as an economic system can accommodate such a radical departure from the old “get a job, go to work” mantra remains to be seen. I would speculate that we will grow more politically socialistic as a matter of necessity.

Claire Cain Miller in The Upshot (New York Times newsletter) has noted recently in an article she calls “As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up” that some economists are having second thoughts on this long held view that new technologies offer new opportunities for employment, thus giving some credence to the 19th century Luddite mindset (though without violence). Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary, for instance, recently stated that he no longer believed that automation would always create new jobs and that (in speaking to replacement of human labor by robots and AI) “This isn’t some hypothetical future possibility. This is something that’s emerging before us right now.” Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at M.I.T., stated: “This is the biggest challenge of our society for the next decade.” Why the professor inferentially limited such a challenge to just the next decade is a mystery; I see it as a social, economic and political problem for a much longer time – lasting  until we can get a handle of how to remake a societal paradigm that will facilitate this merging of technology with human wants and needs. Perhaps some of our propaganda-driven “think tanks” can live up to their names in researching ways and means to deal with the impact of this “biggest challenge of our society for the next decade” rather than harp on taxes and the way we insure the public’s health on behalf of their corporate sponsors.

I will expand on this enormous problem at our doorstep and how some are proposing that we handle it in Part II. Stay tuned.    GERALD    E

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