The image of Private Frazer saying “We are all doomed” in the TV series Dad’s Army is well known. He might have been in Washington DC over the weekend. According to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, machines with intelligence, sight and hearing capacities, and pattern recognition abilities will threaten jobs in all sectors of the economy, including in the world’s oldest profession, and potentially lead to mass unemployment. How should we think about the wave of sombre warnings about robotics, digital technologies and AI demanding our attention?
The AAAS isn’t unique, of course, in sounding the alarm about modern technologies. The Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, has labeled them a life sentence of poverty for most and a divine right to wealth for a few. Professor Stephen Hawking says they could spell the end of the human race.
In the words of a world-famous economist, “We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism. It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress … is over; that the rapid improvement in the standard of life is now going to slow down—at any rate in Great Britain; that a decline in prosperity is more likely than an improvement in the decade which lies ahead of us.” But here’s the catch. That economist was John Maynard Keynes and he wrote this introduction to a tract called Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren in 1930.
It sounds pretty familiar, and if you search hard enough in economic and social history, major bursts of technology and human advancement have always been accompanied by dire warnings of doom and destruction. So let’s rephrase the question slightly. What is different about the current digital technology and robotic revolution, and its consequences?
The simple answer is that whilst technology has in the past allowed us to compensate for and complement the limitations of human brawn, modern technology is substituting and displacing human brains and endeavour. Put another way it is substituting capital for labour, threatening jobs and living standards, especially for middle-wage and middle-skill occupations, i.e. for the middle class.
Rule or routine-based jobs on the factory floor and in offices have fallen to modern technology for some time but increasingly, so are jobs that entail problem-solving, data-mining, pattern-matching, complex communications, report-writing, research, document and data searches, and diagnosis. In The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation, published in 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne looked at various occupations and estimated the probability that they would be lost by 2030. The least likely to lose their jobs were recreational therapists, dentists, athletic trainers, members of the clergy, chemical engineers, editors and firefighters. The most likely were telemarketeers, accountants and auditors, retail salespersons, technical writers, real estate sales agents, word processors and typists and machinists. (In case you’re interested, there was a 43% likelihood that economists would be made redundant—which would, of course, be a dreadful shame!)
The human capacity to predict may validate many of our current concerns for jobs and occupations we know about—we could add traffic policemen, taxi drivers, journalists, and airline pilots. But it can’t extend to the jobs we have no idea are coming down the track. It wasn’t that long ago that no one would have known what an app designer was. We can imagine new jobs requiring more cognitive dexterity, human contact, and so on, but neither economists nor scientists are able to forecast how the world of work will change over the next 20 or more years, or what new jobs will be generated by the digital revolution that, according to experts, is still in its infancy.
The one thing we can say with certainty is that the end of work is not pre-ordained or even likely, but the nature of work is, to be sure, unpredictable. New jobs and occupations will evolve as they have always done, as a result of the interactions of economics, politics, society, business and culture with new technologies. This is unsatisfactory though as it has always been. But driverless cars, robotic care for the elderly and a host of other phenomena are liable to set in motion new demands for goods and services and new manufacturing that we haven’t even started to develop. Think what the advent of the motor car did for roads and transportation infrastructure.
Yet, there is a more current and important aspect of new technologies for which we do have to develop coping mechanisms, and now. The digital revolution—let’s call it “capital-biased technological change”—is distributing productivity gains and rewards disproportionately to the owners of capital and skills as opposed to labour, especially those with lower human capital, as it’s called. This is at least one important reason why real wages have been in a bit of a funk for so long.
The consequences of income inequality are of course important, as we know, not just from the standpoint of fairness and the capacity of most people to consume, but also because its handmaiden is political inequality. And those who gain more political power and influence can be expected to use it to protect or further their economic advantage. So inequality becomes self-perpetuating.
We will have to develop coping mechanisms in the form of redistribution, not only or especially between social classes, but importantly between generations. These mechanisms might include education and training, consideration of job protection schemes, construction and infrastructure programmes, higher minimum wages (in the pipeline), and new forms of capital or land taxation and changes to corporate governance systems to incentivise investment and housebuilding
To return to Keynes, we should recognise that he wasn’t all knowing—he imagined the economic problem of high levels of productivity and more leisure might have been solved by 2030. His concluding comment, though, seems quite apt still today, whether it’s about economists or scientists telling us they have seen the future and it’s dystopian. He wrote “But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists—like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”