Robots are taking your job and mine: deal with it


Two striking articles on the roboticization of the workforce: first is Kevin Kelly in Wired, with "Better Than Human", an optimistic and practical-minded look at the way that robots change the jobs landscape, with some advice on how to survive the automation of your gig:

Now let’s consider quadrant C, the new jobs created by automation—including the jobs that we did not know we wanted done. This is the greatest genius of the robot takeover: With the assistance of robots and computerized intelligence, we already can do things we never imagined doing 150 years ago. We can remove a tumor in our gut through our navel, make a talking-picture video of our wedding, drive a cart on Mars, print a pattern on fabric that a friend mailed to us through the air. We are doing, and are sometimes paid for doing, a million new activities that would have dazzled and shocked the farmers of 1850. These new accomplishments are not merely chores that were difficult before. Rather they are dreams that are created chiefly by the capabilities of the machines that can do them. They are jobs the machines make up.

Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flatscreen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort. Two hundred years ago not a single citizen of Shanghai would have told you that they would buy a tiny slab that allowed them to talk to faraway friends before they would buy indoor plumbing. Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers—a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had. In a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs. Each successful bit of automation generates new occupations—occupations we would not have fantasized about without the prompting of the automation.

To reiterate, the bulk of new tasks created by automation are tasks only other automation can handle. Now that we have search engines like Google, we set the servant upon a thousand new errands. Google, can you tell me where my phone is? Google, can you match the people suffering depression with the doctors selling pills? Google, can you predict when the next viral epidemic will erupt? Technology is indiscriminate this way, piling up possibilities and options for both humans and machines.

It is a safe bet that the highest-earning professions in the year 2050 will depend on automations and machines that have not been invented yet. That is, we can’t see these jobs from here, because we can’t yet see the machines and technologies that will make them possible. Robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted done.

Kelly is one of the great technological optimists of our era, and always makes a good case for the net benefit of technology. I really admire What Technology Wants, his 2010 book, not least because it sets out a program for deciding how to integrate technology with your life, and, more importantly, how and why to refuse to adopt some technologies (Kelly frames as being a "technology gourmet," someone who knows what she wants from technology and seeks it out; versus being a "technology glutton," who pigs out on whatever technology is on offer).

Now, contrast that robot-human co-existence manifesto with Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines, an excerpt from Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy , a new book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee that's being serialized in The Atlantic:

Skill-biased technical change has also been important in the past. For most of the 19th century, about 25% of all agriculture labor threshed grain. That job was automated in the 1860s. The 20th century was marked by an accelerating mechanization not only of agriculture but also of factory work. Echoing the first Nobel Prize winner in economics, Jan Tinbergen, Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz described the resulting SBTC as a "race between education and technology." Ever-greater investments in education, dramatically increasing the average educational level of the American workforce, helped prevent inequality from soaring as technology automated more and more unskilled work. While education is certainly not synonymous with skill, it is one of the most easily measurable correlates of skill, so this pattern suggests that demand for upskilling has increased faster than its supply.

Studies by this book's co-author Erik Brynjolfsson along with Timothy Bresnahan, Lorin Hitt, and Shinku Yang found that a key aspect of SBTC was not just the skills of those working with computers, but more importantly the broader changes in work organization that were made possible by information technology. The most productive firms reinvented and reorganized decision rights, incentives systems, information flows, hiring systems, and other aspects of organizational capital to get the most from the technology. This, in turn, required radically different and, generally, higher skill levels in the workforce. It was not so much that those directly working with computers had to be more skilled, but rather that whole production processes, and even industries, were reengineered to exploit powerful new information technologies. What's more, each dollar of computer hardware was often the catalyst for more than $10 of investment in complementary organizational capital. The intangible organizational assets are typically much harder to change, but they are also much more important to the success of the organization.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are more economist-jargon heavy than Kelly, and more downbeat, and they're also pointing out something obvious, which is that there are losers in technological revolution. See, e.g., Bruce Sterling's end of the year roundup:

Come 2013, I think it's time for people in and around the "music industry" to stop blaming themselves, and thinking their situation is somehow special. Whatever happens to musicians will eventually happen to everybody.

Nobody was or is really much better at "digital transition" than musicians were and are. If you're superb at digitalization, that's no great solution either. You just have to auto-disrupt and re-invent yourself over and over and over again.

It's pretty awful to be a musician and have no possibility of health insurance (as Jaron Lanier keeps pointing out), but you could have been a Nokia engineer. You'd have been blindsided even harder and faster, and you wouldn't even have had the girls and the weed.

Which is to say that even though technology makes us more "productive" and puts more goods into more peoples' hands, that the transition isn't bloodless, it isn't fair, and it isn't always very nice.

But here's the thing that neither of these articles -- or even Bruce's acid observations -- touches on: once technology creates abundance, what possibilities exist for distributing the fruits of that abundance such that the benefits are more evenly felt? We've been talking about an increase in productivity producing an increase in leisure for a long time, but instead, the "winner take all" world of Brynjolfsson and McAfee often seems to produce a "winner" class that works itself into an early grave by running 100-hour work weeks at astounding payscales, and a much larger "loser" class that works itself into an early grave by working 100-hour weeks in shitty, marginal, grey-economy jobs, trying to stitch together something like an income.

In America, anyone who proposes an increase in overall quality of life through public schools, health programs, libraries, or even Internet access, is immediately branded a socialist and dismissed out of hand.

On the other hand, the Internet-age's sweetest dividend is the creative possibilities: the chance to sit in your little grass shack or organic farm or urban crackerbox and use the tubes to carry on debate; to contribute to software and Wikipedia; to crowdsource capital for your creativity; to find makers who have solved 90% of the problem that's nagging you and who will help you solve the remaining ten percent; to access a library of human creativity and knowledge without parallel; to have your art and creativity accessible to all, and to find the mutants who're wired the same as you and jam with them.

That world of de-marketized, non-market, non-commodity and/or gift economy living is something that seems tantalizingly within our grasp today, and it feels like automation holds the key to so much of it. But is it just the latest version of the dream of a leisure society? Or can we Craigslist and Kickstarter and Freecycle and Etsy and Thingiverse and Open Source Hardware and Wikipedia and Creative Commons our way to a world where the means of information is owned by no one and yet tended by all?

(via O'Reilly Radar)

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