robot_factory.jpg

Modern Times

Yet more on this topic, this time from Gary Marcus at the New Yorker:

For centuries, it has always been the case that some new jobs are eliminated by technology, while others are created. It’s hard to parse out exactly the role that technology has played, but as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee note in their superb recent book, “Race Against the Machine,” over the last decade throughout the economy, there has been a drop in the employment-to-population ratio and a drop in median wages, and many of the people who lost jobs couldn’t find new ones that paid as well as the ones that they lost.

…And as machines continue to get smarter, cheaper, and more effective, our options dwindle. Secretaries have been replaced by word processors and accountants by QuickBooks. As John Markoff explained last year, in an article entitled “Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software,” blue-collar and white-collar jobs are both threatened. Even new-fangled information-economy jobs like I.T. departments are now endangered by systems like Amazon’s back-end A.W.S. infrastructure, which provides one-stop cloud-based solutions where a team of on-site computer wizards were once needed. With advances in both hardware and software, the time between the invention of a job and its automated replacement is getting shorter.

…Anything that can be automated will, but where we can create new things, there still may be a niche for us to fill.

It’s that “may” that gets me.

Marcus continues:

It’s not too early to start preparing for that future. Curricula that foster creativity—by developing children’s intrinsic motivation for originality, encouraging their intellectual risk-taking and cultivating their metacognitive ability to self-reflect—might be a good place to start.

Well, whether that can do the trick in time is, to say the least, doubtful, but it beats fretting about a declining birthrate or, worse still, arguing for mass immigration to fill a non-existent labor gap. 

  1. James Of England

    So long as people have needs or desires that require humans to satisfy them, there will be a demand for the labors of others. The day that there is no demand for the labors of others is the day that we all have all our material needs satisfied. I’m not sure that a: I look on that prospect with horror or that b: it looks like it’s going to arrive any time soon.

    Valiuth

    And importing high skilled workers just lowers the earning potential for the right half of the IQ curve. So all those Republicans advocating giving green cards to foreign PhDs isn’t that great either for American workers. In fact probably allowing people to come here to do anything other than study  hurts the job prospects of Americans in some way. 

    Assuming that the cognitive distribution of demanded labor remains the same as population increases through immigration, the importation of high skilled workers increases the earning potential for the left half. This is true even before considering the fact that doctors, lawyers, managers and bankers serving them working for less is hardly an unalloyed harm from the perspective of the American worker.

  2. Nick Stuart
    Andrew Stuttaford

    Marcus continues:

    It’s not too early to start preparing for that future. Curricula that foster creativity—by developing children’s intrinsic motivation for originality, encouraging their intellectual risk-taking and cultivating their metacognitive ability to self-reflect—might be a good place to start.

     1 minute ago

    Curricula that fosters the ability to read, write and speak coherently, follow directions, and cipher to the rule of nines would be an even better place to start. Add in learning to show up on time every day.

    Until we reliably accomplish that very minimalistic skill set there’s no point stressing about “metacognitive ability to self-reflect.”

  3. Byron Horatio

    I think that workforce automation has less to do with technology than it does with harmful wage laws.  Cashiers were not necsesarily replaced by self-checkout machines because of the advance in technology, but that because you had to pay an employee more and more for a low-skill job, the market demanded some sort of solution in the form of automation. 

  4. GadgetGal

    The good news is that the younger generations are already on the case.  Check it out.

    http://www.adafruit.com/blog/2012/12/23/with-growth-of-hacker-scouting-more-kids-learn-to-tinker-npr/

    I talk to young people (15-25) all the time and they love the makers movement.  They are cobbling together projects with open source kits and software in amazing ways–and having a blast doing it.

  5. Pseudodionysius

    Curricula that foster creativity—by developing children’s intrinsic motivation for originality, encouraging their intellectual risk-taking and cultivating their metacognitive ability to self-reflect—might be a good place to start.

    Well, you certainly won’t find that on offer from the 70′s neo Marxist education school curricula currently on offer. Musicians sweat their scales before becoming “creative” and students who don’t learn grammar are crippled as thinkers, as Theodore Dalrymple so balefully mentioned in one of his essays.

  6. John H.

    I’ve been nailing up sheetrock and also programming a computer model of dementia, and I don’t think robots would do either for me. “Anything that can be automated will”? No, I am confident that The New Yorker will continue to pay dumb flesh to write this stuff.

  7. BlueAnt
    Andrew Stuttaford

    …Anything that can be automated will, but where we can create new things, there still may be a niche for us to fill.

    The way to say this in economics jargon is, industries where productivity gains are a function of labor will be automated first; industries where productivity gains are a function of (human) judgement will be automated next; and industries where productivity is a function of capital allocation will most strongly resist automation.

    Why care about productivity?  Well, historically speaking, wage increases were generally a function of productivity gains.  If those gains come more from capital/technology than from labor/workers, wages stagnate.  

    In an increasingly automated world, the primary source of increased income would come from investments, not wages per unit of labor.  Putting monetary capital at risk provides direct, more stable gains than building human capital, which carries inherent risk merely by existing.

    In short, even if you keep a job, your wages will never grow the same as they did before the last technology boom.  And the rich will continue to get richer, not because of any unfairness in capitalism or the political system, but simply because of how they earn wealth.

  8. BlueAnt

    By the way, creative destruction is inextricably linked to the system’s financial health.  Technology leverages capital to create productivity; but American capital is horribly over-leveraged, and the debt overhang will reduce any further growth that could conceivably lead to new jobs.

    The only thing propping up labor/job markets is consumption.  But that is also driven by debt, and suffers similar problems:

    The range of job losses triggered by advances in technology is between 98% and 50%, depending on the rigidity and inefficiency of the industry being transformed.

    For forty years we have counterbalanced this loss of employment by borrowing and spending money on labor-intensive consumption: more healthcare, more retail, more tourism / hospitality, more government. But even these sectors are starting to come under technological pressure, despite the political moats that have been dug around healthcare, education, defense, housing, etc.

    The pressure is not just technological, it is financial: the game of borrowing ever-more money to fund all this labor-intensive consumption is almost over.

    When consumption is no longer satisfied by labor, and consumers can’t get more wealth from debt… where will the money come from to fuel some new job sector?

  9. Hank Rhody

    One thing to remember about automation is that it’s a diminishing returns relationship. The first robot you hire does something mindlessly routine, like the bolt tightening bit from modern times. You can keep automating processes, but each time your gains are a little less. The tasks become less obvious and the machine gets harder to program.

    You say QuickBooks is taking away jobs? fine. If I had half a dozen accounting jobs a century ago, QuickBooks takes away four. It’ll be loads more expensive to take away that fifth, and that sixth job is never gonna be automated.

    You want a more concrete example? Welding. You can program robots to weld things in assembly lines (Harley Davidson does for building bike frames, for example). But you always need welders for repairing things. Large things made of steel are expensive, so much so that it’s almost always cheaper to fix one than to buy a new one. When you’re fixing a broken something you can’t control when and where and how it needs a weld, so you pay for someone’s independent human judgement to hold that torch.

  10. David John
    Byron Horatio: Cashiers were not necsesarily replaced by self-checkout machines because of the advance in technology, but that because you had to pay an employee more and more for a low-skill job….  · 1 hour ago

    I get your point.

    But even a low-skill employee cannot exist on $0.10 / hour which is what I pay my robot.

    We have a new paradigm here.  I don’t know what should be done with the low-skilled citizens. 

  11. Valiuth
    James Of England: 

    Valiuth

    And importing high skilled workers just lowers the earning potential for the right half of the IQ curve. So all those Republicans advocating giving green cards to foreign PhDs isn’t that great either for American workers. In fact probably allowing people to come here to do anything other than study  hurts the job prospects of Americans in some way. 

    Assuming that the cognitive distribution of demanded labor remains the same as population increases through immigration, the importation of high skilled workers increases the earning potential for the left half. This is true even before considering the fact that doctors, lawyers, managers and bankers serving them working for less is hardly an unalloyed harm from the perspective of the American worker. · 1 hour ago

    We don’t really import doctors, lawyers, or bankers. We do import engineers and scientists who provide little direct service for other people. I guess they do help to lower the price of consumer good development. But then again so does cheap manual labor. 

  12. PracticalMary

    In reality jobs just move around. There is upper limit for ‘dependability’ and even skill and one may need to go into management, sales or start your own business for more.

    Few people really understand the relationship between production, sales and shipping- all 3 have to be done (management), plus making yourself as indispensable as possible or just riding along. It’s the same for service jobs (the computer industry, writing/blogs, lawyers, etc.) I think the creative, young people and many in high end ‘service jobs’ haven’t understood this and most won’t. They’re hit hard if their job pool becomes flooded or changes. Writers of blogs have to study uninteresting computer monetizing schemes (if they can’t afford to have it done for them), new authors study e-publishing, if they’re go-getters with no connections. Retail workers aim for mgt. even if it isn’t long term. Or, buy a house and put time into fixing it and turning it, etc. Branch out of your natural interests to what the market needs. Drop what isn’t working even if you spent a lot getting there. Don’t act like a machine.
  13. Fricosis Guy

    The tech jobs they’re talking about aren’t “new-fangled” and haven’t been for years. Why should I pay $50/hr for an insolent and barely competent inhouse DBA when I can go to [fill in the country or firm] for 1/3 the price? Dilbert isn’t a comic strip, it’s a reality show.

  14. Mark Krikorian
    C

    Andrew: The thing about immigration in all this is not only that it’s presented as the solution to a non-existent labor shortage, but also that it undermines the remaining wage-earning opportunities of those workers least able to adapt to rapid technological change.

    I’m sure everyone can, to some degree, be encouraged in “intellectual risk-taking” and have their “metacognitive ability to self-reflect” cultivated (whatever that means). But policymakers seem to forget that half the population is, by definition, below the median in IQ and in “metacognitive ability to self-reflect”. Importing low-skilled immigrants sabotages their position in the labor market for those jobs suitable to them which have not yet been automated.

    Even if libertarians don’t see it as wrong to deliberately screw their fellow countrymen through the discretionary immigration program, it should at least be clear that when increasing numbers of low-skilled workers are losing the race against both the machine and the immigrant, the vote for statist solutions can only increase.

  15. Brian Clendinen

    I think machines improving productivity but making the peoples labor worthless that were replaced,  is B.S. I don’t curse ever but I really want to curse the idea. Common Senses destroy the possibility of the idea. Human labor worthless yay right what universe do you live in.   Any computer programer can tell you the limitations on machines.

    There will always be millions of task that humans can do that no program can ever do.

    Now machines destroying jobs  and no low thought or low creativity jobs replacing them, that I believe.

  16. PracticalMary
    I got a little off topic. I started out by thinking of how our CNC machines are so great. They save time, materials and muscles (also fingers in saws). When we give tours we point out how it lowers the cost of the item, too. It takes programmers (skilled) and the machine runners (unskilled). I should add we could outsource this part, and many do. Both the skilled/unskilled believe they should make more and more for doing the same job over and over, everyday… The owner, my husband, has learned both aspects plus the mgt, sales, shipping part…and all he really has wanted to do is just build the things.

    Of course there are those that specialize in the boutique, totally hand-built product and this is cool too.

    The underlying principals of employment, etc. stay the same.

  17. Mike Poliquin

    You’re welcome to read my take on this very subject in detail here: I based my New Year’s resolution and blog post on it.

    We’ve got what we voted for — a political economy where the makers have to produce enough supply and income for the 70% taxes to service debt and the welfare state and still have enough left over to justify even playing by the rules. Forget allies abroad, by the way. Israel and Taiwan are surely doomed.

    Instead of dismissing this as the nightmare I wish not to be, I have accepted the challenge: I’m going to a project and inquiry basis with standards-based grading in my classroom this very semester.

    To those of you who want to see a return to the “old standards”: everyone can do that stuff, and it’s not enough to even start solving this problem.

    Try this idea for size: “education” panels picking out the future “makers” and dismissing the future “takers” from school so that we can focus resources on those who will be productive. Watch for Obama and his ilk to push for nationalized federal education next.

    This is the paradigm we voted for … twice.

  18. Pseudodionysius

    I’m trying to shoehorn metacognitive ability to self reflect into a PelosiPaloozaPigInAPoke that passes a 6,536 page health care law that no one can be bothered reading until after its passed.

  19. James Of England
    Valiuth

    James Of England: 

    Valiuth

    Assuming that the cognitive distribution of demanded labor remains the same as population increases through immigration, the importation of high skilled workers increases the earning potential for the left half. This is true even before considering the fact that doctors, lawyers, managers and bankers serving them working for less is hardly an unalloyed harm from the perspective of the American worker. · 1 hour ago

    We don’t really import doctors, lawyers, or bankers. We do import engineers and scientists who provide little direct service for other people. I guess they do help to lower the price of consumer good development. But then again so does cheap manual labor.  · 1 hour ago

    I don’t know the figures for the US, but for Canadians scientists and engineers make up a little under half their intake. With scientists and engineers I agree that the benefit to the poor is  more attenuated, coming largely from the increases in tax revenues and general prosperity. Do you believe that the US economy does not benefit significantly from foreign scientific labor; either that Silicon Valley is unimportant or that it would have been built without foreigners?

  20. R. Craigen

    If our experience at U Manitoba is typical (I have every reason to believe it is) then most grad students in North America are from overseas and as a body they are better qualified than North American students.

    This is largely attributable to an education system (here) that believes it can teach higher cognitive skills like metacognition and critical thinking in the absence of mastery, foundations and technical skills like grammar, spelling, logic, and basic arithmetic.  Experience shows that this is a fool’s quest.  

    There is nothing exceptional about that aspect of the “brave new system” discussed in the New Yorker piece; it is alarmingly typical.  Our educators since the 70s have been promising more and more to teach “understanding” rather than “rote skills” — the current wave is only doubling down on that trend.  But they send us students with weaker and weaker cognitive skills because they haven’t mastered simple algebra — nor even the underlying arithmetic.  They haven’t the tools to understand.  But their foreign competitors do — and fill our grad student slots … most people on grad selection committees (where I have done my time) still understand that the university is not a charity.