On August 22, 2014, Neil Irwin writes in The New York Times:
It’s easy to look at the amazing advances in information technology and robotics over the last century and be fearful about the future of the American worker. From factory floors to your grocery store checkout, countless jobs once done by humans have been handed over to computers. Budding technologies like driverless cars promise that more of us will lose our jobs to a computer in the generation ahead.
But David Autor, a leading scholar of labor markets at M.I.T., offers a somewhat more sunny way of looking at things. In a paper presented at the annual gathering of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on Friday, Mr. Autor argues that even as computers have gotten better at rote tasks, they have progressed far less in applying common sense.
Try to teach a computer how to tell that a picture of a chair is a chair, for example, and it will be befuddled. “Both a toilet and a traffic cone look somewhat like a chair,” Mr. Autor writes, “but a bit of reasoning about their shapes vis-à-vis the human anatomy suggests that a traffic cone is unlikely to make a comfortable seat. Drawing this inference, however, requires reasoning about what an object is ‘for,’ not simply what it looks like,” a skill computers generally still lack.
Machine learning, such as Google Translate or Netflix movie recommendations, is deeply inconsistent, he argues, “uncannily accurate at times, typically, only so-so; and occasionally, unfathomable.”
So what does that mean for workers over the years and decades ahead? Mr. Autor says that this weakness leaves plenty of opportunities for humans to serve as intermediaries of sorts between increasingly intelligent computers that nonetheless lack that common sense.
He invokes the idea of “Polanyi’s Paradox,” named for the Hungarian thinker Michael Polanyi, who observed that “we know more than we can tell,” meaning humans can do immensely complicated things like drive a car or tell one species of bird from another without fully understanding the technical details.
“Following Polanyi’s observation,” Mr. Autor writes, “the tasks that have proved most vexing to automate are those demanding flexibility, judgment, and common sense — skills that we understand only tacitly.”
So what does that mean for the jobs that will exist in the future, even as technology gets better and better at accomplishing many of the things that humans do now?
“Many of the middle-skill jobs that persist in the future will combine routine technical tasks with the set of non-routine tasks in which workers hold comparative advantage — interpersonal interaction, flexibility, adaptability and problem-solving,” Mr. Autor writes. He specifically mentions medical support jobs, building trades and some clerical jobs that require decision-making rather than typing and filing.
In the paper, Mr. Autor presents data showing that these middle-skill jobs have indeed been under pressure over the last few decades, with much stronger growth in the number of both very basic low-paying jobs and the most advanced jobs for skilled professionals. It is a hollowing-out of the American work force, in effect, with fewer jobs for technicians and factory workers and the middle-class wages that come with them.
But while acknowledging the trend in the past, Mr. Autor argues there’s not much reason to expect it to continue in the future.
“I expect that a significant stratum of middle-skill, non-college jobs combining specific vocational skills with foundational middle skills — literacy, numeracy, adaptability, problem-solving and common sense — will persist in the coming decades.” He argues that it is hard to blame computerization for jobs that have disappeared over the last decade in that much of the shift happened after capital investment in information technology fell following the collapse of the dot-com bubble.
Undergirding Mr. Autor’s optimism is the fact that mankind has consistently feared that technology will replace its jobs, and consistently been wrong. At the dawn of the 20th century, he notes, 41 percent of the American work force worked in agriculture, a number that fell to 2 percent by 2000. Farmers of that era could scarcely imagine that so few of their descendants would work in agriculture, or that so many would work in health care, finance, electronics, leisure and entertainment and so on.
“One can find fresh examples daily in which technology substitutes for human labor in an expanding — though still circumscribed — set of tasks,” Mr. Autor writes. “The complementarities are always harder to identify.”
In other words, it is a lot easier to see the jobs that are endangered by emerging technologies than it is the opportunities for new jobs those technologies will create.
No one is suggesting that “robots” will completely replace labor as an input to production and of course there will be opportunities for new jobs created by technological innovation. But certainly one would be blind if they did not realize that the greater impact of technological innovation is that private sector job creation in numbers that match the pool of people willing and able to work is constantly being eroded by physical productive capital’s ever increasing role.
The role of physical productive capital is to do ever more of the work, which produces wealth and thus income to those who own productive capital assets. Full employment is not an objective of businesses. Companies strive to keep labor input and other costs at a minimum in order to maximize profits for the owners. They strive to minimize marginal cost, the cost of producing an additional unit of a good, product or service once a business has its fixed costs in place in order to stay competitive with other companies racing to stay competitive through technological innovation. Reducing marginal costs enables businesses to increase profits, offer goods, products and services at a lower price, or both. Increasingly, new technologies are enabling companies to achieve near-zero cost growth without having to hire people.
Over the past century there has been an ever-accelerating shift to productive capital––which reflects tectonic shifts in the technologies of production. The mixture of labor worker input and capital worker input has been rapidly changing at an exponential rate of increase for over 235 years in step with the Industrial Revolution (starting in 1776) and had even been changing long before that with man’s discovery of the first tools, but at a much slower rate. Up until the close of the nineteenth century, the United States remained a working democracy, with the production of products and services dependent on labor worker input. When the American Industrial Revolution began and subsequent technological advance amplified the productive power of non-human capital, plutocratic finance channeled its ownership into fewer and fewer hands, as we continue to witness today with government by the wealthy evidenced at all levels.
People invented tools to reduce toil, enable otherwise impossible production, create new highly automated industries, and significantly change the way in which products and services are produced from labor intensive to capital intensive––the core function of technological invention. Most changes in the productive capacity of the world since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution can be attributed to technological improvements in our capital assets, and a relatively diminishing proportion to human labor. Capital, in binary economics terms, does not “enhance” labor productivity (labor’s ability to produce economic goods). In fact, the opposite is true. It makes many forms of labor unnecessary.
Furthermore, productive capital is increasingly the source of the world’s economic growth and, therefore, should become the source of added property ownership incomes for all. If both labor and capital are independent factors of production, and if capital’s proportionate contributions are increasing relative to that of labor, then equality of opportunity and economic justice demands that the right to property (and access to the means of acquiring and possessing property) must in justice be extended to all. Yet, sadly, the American people and its leaders still pretend to believe that labor is becoming more productive. And while labor scholar David Autor further argues that technological innovation will create new job opportunities, the problem is there won’t be enough positions created that will pay the wage level necessary to affluently sustain oneself and a family.
What we need is to reform the system to create a democratic growth economy, based on binary economics, wherein the ownership of capital would be spread more broadly as the economy grows, without taking anything away from the 1 to 10 percent who now own 50 to 90 percent of the corporate wealth (capital assets). Instead, the ownership pie would desirably get much bigger and their percentage of the total ownership would decrease, as ownership gets broader and broader, benefiting EVERY citizen, including the traditionally disenfranchised poor and working and middle class. Thus, productive capital income would be distributed more broadly and the demand for products and services would be distributed more broadly from the earnings of capital and result in the sustentation of consumer demand, which will promote economic growth. That also means that society can profitably employ unused productive capacity and invest in more productive capacity to service the demands of a growth economy.
The Center For Economic and Social Justice (www.cesj.org) advocates new justice-committed leaders, especially those who want to end the corruption built into our exclusionary system of monopoly capitalism––the main source of corruption of any political system, democratic or otherwise. They advocate the need to radically overhaul the Federal tax system and monetary policies and institute proposals to get money power to the 99 percent of American citizens who now only rely on their labor worker earnings. Under The Just Third Way more just and simple tax system, access would by provided to ownership of the means of production in the future to every child, woman and man by requiring the government to lift all existing legal and institutional barriers to private property stakes as a fundamental human right.
Support the Agenda of The Just Third Way Movement at http://foreconomicjustice.org/?p=5797, http://www.cesj.org/resources/articles-index/the-just-third-way-basic-principles-of-economic-and-social-justice-by-norman-g-kurland/, http://www.cesj.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/jtw-graphicoverview-2013.pdf and http://www.cesj.org/resources/articles-index/the-just-third-way-a-new-vision-for-providing-hope-justice-and-economic-empowerment/.
Support the Capital Homestead Act at http://www.cesj.org/learn/capital-homesteading/capital-homestead-act-a-plan-for-getting-ownership-income-and-power-to-every-citizen/ and http://www.cesj.org/learn/capital-homesteading/capital-homestead-act-summary/.
Support the Unite America Party Platform, published by The Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/platform-of-the-unite-ame_b_5474077.html as well as Nation Of Change at http://www.nationofchange.org/platform-unite-america-party-1402409962 and OpEd News at http://www.opednews.com/articles/Platform-of-the-Unite-Amer-by-Gary-Reber-Party-Leadership_Party-Platforms-DNC_Party-Platforms-GOP-RNC_Party-Politics-Democratic-140630-60.html.
See “President Obama Pushing Support For Technology Industry” at http://www.nationofchange.org/president-obama-pushing-support-technology-industry-1390143610.