Automation and Jobs: the tide turns

I felt lonely last year as I was writing Silicon Collar. I had a minority view that modern machines will not lead to dramatic job losses, at least not any time soon. In recent weeks I have read many articles and studies which agree with my assessment.

A paper by Oxford and Yale researchers polled AI/machine learning experts about when machines would match human capabilities in various occupations. “Researchers believe there is a 50% chance of Al outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years.”

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said “In terms of artificial intelligence taking American jobs, I think we’re, like, so far away from that – not even on my radar screen. I think it’s 50 or 100 more years.”

James Surowiecki writes in Wired “It’s a dramatic story, this epoch-defining tale about automation and permanent unemployment. But it has one major catch: There isn’t actually much evidence that it’s happening.” He quotes Andrew McAfee, co-author of The Second Machine Age, saying “If I had to do it over again, I would put more emphasis on the way technology leads to structural changes in the economy, and less on jobs, jobs, jobs. The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.”

Cathy Englebert and Scott Corwin of Deloitte write in Quartz that autonomous cars and trucks will not merely cannibalize driving jobs

“There will be new businesses that will digitally enable the planning and consumption of passenger and goods movement to be more efficient, enjoyable, productive, safer, cleaner, and cheaper. That could mean everything from maintaining vehicle fleets to remote monitoring….The combination of mobility and smart cities can also provide broader benefits, like increased access to healthcare, efficient energy, and different jobs.”

Nicholas Carr writes on his blog Roughtype “You can see the robot age everywhere but in the labor statistics”

Dan Nidess writes in the Wall Street Journal that Universal Basic Income would be a calamity. There has been plenty of discussion on UBI in the scenario of automation leading to massive job losses.

Roman Rytov passed along a TechCast survey of experts, concluding we are likely to go through a “Muddling Through” period of turmoil but relatively few net job losses is most likely.

Of course as the economy turns as it invariably will, we will see the pessimists come back. Happens every few decades.

President Lyndon Johnson set up a blue ribbon commission to explore  growing panic about automation. Go back another few decades. Palo Alto, with its VCs and startups, is today the capital of the technology world. But would you believe the mayor of that city sent President Herbert Hoover a letter warning that industrial technology was a “Frankenstein monster” that was “devouring our civilization.”? You can go back every few decades all the way back to the Luddites and you find similar panic attacks. The Luddites, of course, had the ultimate panic attack. They were bands of English workers in the 1810s who destroyed newly introduced machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, fearing their jobs would be lost.

For now, though let’s celebrate machines. They take over our dull, dirty and dangerous tasks and make us smarter, speedier and safer workers.


(Cross-posted @ Deal Architect)

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