I-ROBOT, meet I-Need-a-Job

For anyone looking for a story about how technology is impacting the unemployment picture, there is perhaps no better place to start than Martin Ford’s Lights at the End of the TunnelWhat Ford hopes is to start a conversation. That conversation is about the rising intelligence of machines, and what that means to the future of work, and the survival of a market based society. Ford’s predictions of a world that our children or grandchildren will be living in: the world before 2089; sounds like science fiction, but his view of the increasing speed and complexity of our machines is conservative. He is no Ray Kurzweil, though he takes the Singularity movement as something much more seriously than many of its detractors might.The world of 2089 is one in which almost all work done by humans can be better performed by machines.  Highly paid knowledge workers might feel safe from all this robot stuff. After all,who can imagine C3PO standing in front of a court room arguing a case? But, as Ford points out, the job of the vast majority of knowledge workers, including lawyers, deals with sifting through information, summarizing that information, and moving it around. This is a task that advanced algorithms can do splendidly, with out the need for coffee breaks at Starbucks, or better, without the need for health care or a 401k matching plan. Certain types of medical professionals, such as radiologist, who make 100k a year, seemed destined to go the way of the the Steel mill worker- replaced by a combination of outsourcing and automation.It is the relationship between outsourcing and automation that is one of the most interesting contentions of Ford’s book. He sees outsourcing as more of a prelude to automation than an end in itself. Companies first outsource something to minimize human labor costs- say that of the poor souls in India who are forced to help Americans with their tech and credit card problems. Eventually though, machines always catch up, and can therefore provide a much more efficient job, 24/7 without ever asking for a sick day off. “Buy America” types might be happy about this because it suggests many of those manufacturing jobs we’ve offloaded to China will at some point be coming home. The rub is they won’t be bringing the jobs back with them.

The jobs that will be last to disappear will be those low skill jobs that have proven extremely hard to automate. There is an old AI adage that something that took life 5 billion years to master- say picking up after toddlers- is hard, whereas something life has been doing for only a few thousand- say mathematics- is easy. Ford’s question is how can a market society based on consumption survive in a world where work has dwindled to almost nothing, along with the incomes attached to it? His answer is- it can’t.

It is Ford’s solutions I have some problems with: a massive guaranteed income system that is meant to preserve consumption. How do we pay for it? We tax the profits of producer companies that would have, without automation, had to provide income to workers. Given that the system is straining, or soon will be, under the current income system we have for the retired, this solution seems more fanciful that a world where almost all work is done by machines.

The question I have is why do we have to preserve the current system under the assumptions of near total automation? Is there no better system that would reflect better the new situation? There isn’t a market economy on Star Trek- well not counting the Ferengi. In any case, Ford has certainly got a discussion started with this excellent and smart book.

 

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7 comments on “I-ROBOT, meet I-Need-a-Job

  1. […] from us. The reasons for this are multiple; To name just a few: financial   concentration,  automation, the end of “low hanging fruit” and their consequent high growth rates brought by […]

  2. […] point was also made, and more extensively  by Martin Ford in his Lights at the End of the Tunnel.  Advanced algorithms now effectively run our financial markets, and this despite their corrosive […]

  3. […] from us. The reasons for this are multiple; To name just a few: financial   concentration,  automation, the end of “low hanging fruit” and their consequent high growth rates brought by […]

  4. srwright607 says:

    I loved this book but of course disagreed with some of the solutions.

    Everyone seems to agree on what the problem is but we don’t have a solution, do you have an idea?

    • Rick Searle says:

      I wish I did.

      There’s a lot of talk in tech circles now about a guaranteed minimum income. There’s also some talk about the idea of linking groups of robots to individuals where essentially everyone would have their own surrogate workers and gain income from that.

      I do think there might be some areas of human work which we might have to keep machines from encroaching upon- art for instance- in order to retain our sense of dignity and worth.

      My instinct tells me that the best way to approach this is to allow each society to work out its own relationship with intelligent machines and that the worst thing we could do is adopt an approach that everyone has to follow.

      • srwright607 says:

        I agree with you entirely, but I think it’s unrealistic and a bit idealistic to suppose that the world, and more specific the ruling classes of the world, do not already have something in mind for us.

        I’m all against evangelizing a meta-ethic of “how to sincerely adapt to innovation technology”, that everyone should use, mostly because like you I believe we’re both against the government or any kind of formal institution imposing on us a method of how to deal with technology.

        But it does seem to be our duty to at least inform the public of this looming transition. That even though Thomas Friedman loudly declares that we can invent jobs in the future, that we can relax because we are breaking away from the k-12 “getting into college” educational shematic, but he doesn’t explain where the consumers will be in a world of producers. When everyone can produce thanks to technology, where is the consumer demand?

        The demands you mentioned sound similar to the demands of Occupy, but Jaron Lanier’s and others ideas are basically more or less the same argument of the government compensating for the unfair distribution among the classes. We all know though that the elite of every nation will have access to emerson data centers/stratfor news reports/other forms intelligence, than the common man, and the upper classes will always remain above us in moore’s law so they will be faster than us, how can the government, which is run by these ruling class, make up for this inequality? An organism rarely acts against its own interest, it only pretends to do so in front of other people to maintain good public relations.

        Love hearing your thoughts! Thanks for the timely reply

      • Rick Searle says:

        I don’t know if this is more or less scary- but I don’t think the elites have any idea what they are doing. They are trapped in a seemingly uncontrollable process- just like the rest of us.

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