You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot—and Sooner Than You Think

Below is the latest Green/Left scare.  It is in fact hundreds of years old but it seems to have been reanimated by the advent of driverless cars. It goes back to Ned Ludd, in the 18th century, who wrecked weaving machines that threatened hand-weavers with losing their jobs.  Ever since, new forms of mechanization have been seen as casting hordes of people into unemployment.  But it has never happened.  After a couple of hundred years of more and more mechanization, unemployment never seems to vary much

Why is mechanization no problem?  What will those cast out of work do for a living?  The answer, broadly, is that there is an insatiable demand for personal services.  Only a tiny percentage of our population is growing all our food these days and even factory work has declined greatly.

And a major replacement activity we all know about is eating out. Figures vary but most people will eat out for several meals a week.  We could perfectly easily feed ourselves but we choose to  go out and find someone who can do it better.  And with the cooks concerned come waitresses, managers, bus boys, food delivery men, cleaners etc.

And another great arena for creating jobs is accommodation.  We want bigger and better houses and apartments.  And building them is a huge labor-intensive enterprise.

But those are just two obvious examples.  The point is that in a market economy jobs arise to meet the demand that people with money to spend create.  The work may be humble -- as with shoeshine "boys", bus-boys, janitors, roadwork signallers, cleaners, prostitutes etc but people will always find something more that they "need" done. Capitalism will come to the rescue!  Much to the ire of the useless Leftist "planners"

I want to tell you straight off what this story is about: Sometime in the next 40 years, robots are going to take your job.

I don’t care what your job is. If you dig ditches, a robot will dig them better. If you’re a magazine writer, a robot will write your articles better. If you’re a doctor, IBM’s Watson will no longer “assist” you in finding the right diagnosis from its database of millions of case studies and journal articles. It will just be a better doctor than you.

Until we figure out how to fairly distribute the fruits of robot labor, it will be an era of mass joblessness and mass poverty.
And CEOs? Sorry. Robots will run companies better than you do. Artistic types? Robots will paint and write and sculpt better than you. Think you have social skills that no robot can match? Yes, they can. Within 20 years, maybe half of you will be out of jobs. A couple of decades after that, most of the rest of you will be out of jobs.

In one sense, this all sounds great. Let the robots have the damn jobs! No more dragging yourself out of bed at 6 a.m. or spending long days on your feet. We’ll be free to read or write poetry or play video games or whatever we want to do. And a century from now, this is most likely how things will turn out. Humanity will enter a golden age.

But what about 20 years from now? Or 30? We won’t all be out of jobs by then, but a lot of us will—and it will be no golden age. Until we figure out how to fairly distribute the fruits of robot labor, it will be an era of mass joblessness and mass poverty. Working-class job losses played a big role in the 2016 election, and if we don’t want a long succession of demagogues blustering their way into office because machines are taking away people’s livelihoods, this needs to change, and fast. Along with global warming, the transition to a workless future is the biggest challenge by far that progressive politics—not to mention all of humanity—faces. And yet it’s barely on our radar.

That’s kind of a buzzkill, isn’t it? Luckily, it’s traditional that stories about difficult or technical subjects open with an entertaining or provocative anecdote. The idea is that this allows readers to ease slowly into daunting material. So here’s one for you: Last year at Christmas, I was over at my mother’s house and mentioned that I had recently read an article about Google Translate. It turns out that a few weeks previously, without telling anyone, Google had switched over to a new machine-learning algorithm. Almost overnight, the quality of its translations skyrocketed. I had noticed some improvement myself but had chalked it up to the usual incremental progress these kinds of things go through. I hadn’t realized it was due to a quantum leap in software.

But if Google’s translation algorithm was better, did that mean its voice recognition was better too? And its ability to answer queries? Hmm. How could we test that? We decided to open presents instead of cogitating over this.

But after that was over, the subject of erasers somehow came up. Which ones are best? Clear? Black? Traditional pink? Come to think of it, why are erasers traditionally pink? “I’ll ask Google!” I told everyone. So I pulled out my phone and said, “Why are erasers pink?” Half a second later, Google told me.

Not impressed? You should be. We all know that phones can recognize voices tolerably well these days. And we know they can find the nearest café or the trendiest recipe for coq au vin. But what about something entirely random? And not a simple who, where, or when question. This was a why question, and it wasn’t about why the singer Pink uses erasers or why erasers are jinxed. Google has to be smart enough to figure out in context that I said pink and that I’m asking about the historical reason for the color of erasers, not their health or the way they’re shaped. And it did. In less than a second. With nothing more than a cheap little microprocessor and a slow link to the internet.

(In case you’re curious, Google got the answer from Design*Sponge: “The eraser was originally produced by the Eberhard Faber Company…The erasers featured pumice, a volcanic ash from Italy that gave them their abrasive quality, along with their distinctive color and smell.”)

Still not impressed? When Watson famously won a round of Jeopardy! against the two best human players of all time, it needed a computer the size of a bedroom to answer questions like this. That was only seven years ago.

What do pink erasers have to do with the fact that we’re all going to be out of a job in a few decades? Consider: Last October, an Uber trucking subsidiary named Otto delivered 2,000 cases of Budweiser 120 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs—without a driver at the wheel. Within a few years, this technology will go from prototype to full production, and that means millions of truck drivers will be out of a job.

Automated trucking doesn’t rely on newfangled machines, like the powered looms and steam shovels that drove the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Instead, like Google’s ability to recognize spoken words and answer questions, self-driving trucks—and cars and buses and ships—rely primarily on software that mimics human intelligence. By now everyone’s heard the predictions that self-driving cars could lead to 5 million jobs being lost, but few people understand that once artificial-intelligence software is good enough to drive a car, it will be good enough to do a lot of other things too. It won’t be millions of people out of work; it will be tens of millions.


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