• Why the machines won’t take our jobs

    Created by Max Cougar Oswald from the Noun Project
    Created by Max Cougar Oswald from the Noun Project

    There is growing fear, or at least suspicion, that smart machines will soon lead to unemployment as they eliminate more jobs than they produce. A pew survey of “experts” in the fields of artificial intelligence and economics showed an even split about whether or not this is an inevitable outcome of technological progress. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom said that wage labor will plummet if sophisticated AI is created, while others such as Mike Collins, writing for Forbes, and MIT’s David Autor are more optimistic, at least for now because artificial intelligence falls qualitatively short of what human minds can do. Is this digital or cognitronic revolution economically different from the industrial revolution? Nobody today thinks the cotton gin or railroads were a bad idea. Some argue this is different and this post is about those arguments.

    Two kinds of fears: short and long term

    Innovations can be disruptive to economies in the short-run. The industrial revolution and assembly-line production laid to waste entire industries of handmade products in the world. There are no more milkmen, log drivers, radio actors, switchboard operators, or ice cutters. When entire occupations vanish due to technological obsolescence, unemployment can rise and many lives can be adversely affected. But nobody thinks we would be better off picking cotton by hand just to make jobs, or that we should not use email (or blogs!) because it reduces the need for letter carriers. Short term disruption is just a price we must pay for progress sometimes. What about the not-so-short term?

    Now we get theoretical. There has never been any long-term loss of jobs or economic malady caused by technological innovation. New technology that creates more of something without using more resources causes the economy to grow and, usually, product costs to fall. When products are cheaper, then new businesses can emerge and hire more people because the cost of doing things has decreased. The argument by those such as Nick Bostrom seems to be that there is a finite list of possible jobs and that machines that can replace or do human-type thinking will take more and more of these jobs, which then cannot be replaced as these are finite in kind.

    In the following video “Humans Need Not Apply”, popular YouTube channel author C.G.P. Grey explains what is different now is that the machines replace brains, whereas during most of human history machines simply replaced human muscle.

    He says that formerly human-only feats like composing music, writing news articles, and making medical diagnoses show that most jobs will become technologically obsolete, not just drudgery or simple tasks.

    This sounds a bit scary. Should we fear automation intruding into think-y and creative jobspaces? Is there a coming economic collapse due to technological unemployment? No. There is no reason whatever to think any of this and I will explain why.

    Economically nonsensical

    Economists have long pointed this out. In fact it has a name, the Luddite fallacy. New technology replaces jobs when it cuts costs. This means goods and services are cheaper and the disposable income of the average citizen increases. They will then spend that money elsewhere; often the shift spurs the growth or creation of new goods or services, but one way or another, it ends up reinvested in industry.

    Or, look at it this way. Some magic robot is invented tomorrow. It drives, does surgery, your taxes, makes a great tofu burger, and a hundred other jobs for pennies on the dollar versus the cost if a human did the job. Half of the population is now unemployed and unemployable. Now, question: who is buying those goods and services?  The people who don’t have jobs or money? Few, if any, businesses could survive a sudden loss of half their consumer base. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point: it isn’t economically possible for a corporation to be profitable by using any technology that reduces costs while removing customers from its market. In other words…

    The economy serves us and is us

    I like C.G.P. Grey’s videos. They’re sharp and informative, but in the above video he draws a senseless comparison between the obsolete horses replaced by cars and not given new jobs, and humans who are soon to be similarly replaced. The comparison is daft because cars were invented and produced to forward the interests of people. If they didn’t, they would not have been. If horses had a say in the matter, history would have unfolded differently.

    There is no evidence

    In the long-term, there has never been any evidence that technological advances have increased the overall unemployment rate.  —Tejvan Pettinger

    Right now, the US has a low unemployment rate, 5.5% and it has been dropping consistently for a year. This is at or near what most economists call “full employment” and there is no recent trend toward unemployment.

    The paranoid claims of technological unemployment are that it is “coming” and always “just around the corner”, but it never seems to get here. This is true in spite of the fact that we have now had machines replacing scores of service and professional (read: not mere labor) jobs for years. I am open to revising my expectations about the future. Technology can indeed re-write what we think of as possible. But some evidence must be provided to support these claims. As of now, all evidence is to the contrary.

    Why so grim?

    We fear unemployment and replacement by robots because robots really do replace our jobs and adversely affect our lives. But this is a problem of social and economic policy, not the basic nature of economic systems. History is very clear that being at or near 100% employment is no insurance against millions of people starving to death. We should have safeguards against anyone lacking food and shelter, regardless of the details of our economy.

    The word “Luddite” famously refers to early 19th century laborers who smashed machines such as weaving looms and threshers which had reduced demand for certain jobs. Most people think the Luddites were technophobic or afraid of technological innovations putting them out of work. But this is probably wrong. In fact, they targeted 200-year old inventions (among others) and were protesting against unfair labor practices, according to Smithsonian Magazine‘s Richard Conniff. This truth about the Luddites is grounds for real worry. In their time, industry changed faster than regulatory policy and public understanding of fair economic policy. This could happen again. Not because a machine shows up to do your job, but because of the inhumanity of the CEOs and traders that may seek to abuse both.

    Category: Critical ThinkingfeaturedFeatured Incskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.

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    • guerillasurgeon

      As to whether you can make a profit on half the population, it probably depends on what you are selling. As it is, many people can’t afford much of the stuff that is produced without some sort of subsidy. And many go without. This is true of those who are out of work, and many of those who work in very low-wage jobs. Which I might add have been replacing higher wage skilled or semiskilled jobs for some time. And capitalists often seem to forget that a prosperous country is necessary for people to buy their stuff.

      • 50% was part of the hypothetical to keep it a bit more realistic; but many people who fear technological unemployment would put that number closer to 100% (eventually). Products get subsidized, but subsidies come from tax dollars. Unemployed or very low-income people do not pay income taxes, so again, the technology deployed only hurts the ones deploying them.

        Low wages and the problem of wealth disparity transcend any issues of technological development; these existed centuries and millennia ago and can be remedied with sensible economic policy. So I find those objections neither here nor there.

        • guerillasurgeon

          I don’t know where you live mate but across much of the world low income or unemployed people do pay taxes, particularly by way of sales taxes.

          • I did not say they pay no taxes. I said they do not pay income taxes. I said income taxes and not taxes in general because subsidies (which you brought up) in my country do not generally come from sales taxes, only income taxes.
            Sales taxes could not cover such subsidies you speak of because if you have zero or little income, you aren’t paying much sales tax either (and in the US, basic goods like unprepared food in the supermarket don’t get taxed).

            • guerillasurgeon

              “In the US.” – I didn’t say no income tax I just said particularly sales tax, I must confess partly because I find it abhorrent and regressive. But you can’t base everything in the world on what happens in the US.

            • The reason I bother to write “in the US” is because I know that does not necessarily generalize. I can base everything in the world on basic math. Tell me where I lose you. No jobs means no income. No income means no taxes, not any kind of taxes because one needs a job to pay any variety of tax. No tax means no subsidies because subsidies come from tax funds.

    • ncovington89

      Well great minds think alike. Some of my old posts, especially the few that are on economic related issues, have exactly the same conclusions and logic to get there that are here.
      Incidentally, I think if we do ever start to see an irreplaceable job wipeout (as in, not all, but most jobs done by robots) we could always install universal basic income to even everything out.

      • Yes, much of what I am saying is not novel, but the same old fears re-appear wrapped in contemporary details; “this time it’s different…” so I think it bears arguing back, no, it is not different.

        UBI makes sense to me, but not in response to technological unemployment. If most jobs vanish permanently, there will be no income to pay taxes that pay a UBI. In other words, these terms cease to have meaning, or meaning anything like what they are now. If goods and services can be made without human labor at all, the economic cost is zero, and nobody needs an income to get them.

        • ncovington89

          “If goods and services can be made without human labor at all, the economic cost is zero, and nobody needs an income to get them.”
          This is true, but such a scenario is not likely, in my opinion, to happen any time within the next few decades, and maybe never. I think a more realistic scenario would be not “all” but maybe a large fraction or even majority of jobs vanishing without replacements in the coming decades. Many people, though, would still generate income for various services they perform (waittressing is probably irreplacable, for example, and of course company owners will always generate money). Under such an economy it might be wise to install basic income.

          • Oh I agree, it is not likely any time soon (I’d argue, ever). But others are arguing that. Also, I use it to illustrate the point. It’s an extreme, but let’s say only 20% of that happens, 20% of all imaginable types of labor or occupation vanish forever. The effect is the same: all critical goods and services then become 20% cheaper, permanently. Everyone can work 20% less or make 20% less (compared to before the shift) with zero change in quality of life, ability to acquire goods etc.., So there’s no conceivable point in the continuum that is bad. It’s always good.

            Waitressing is already superfluous, a service we like but don’t need. Japan has many restaurants without them, patrons can enter orders on digital kiosks. Food is delivered by little conveyors.

            UBI has appeal to me, but not for any reasons that have anything to do with technological development. It’s more a means of reducing obscene and harmful wealth inequality, an ancient problem, not a new one.

            • ncovington89

              “Everyone can work 20% less or make 20% less (compared to before the shift) with zero change in quality of life, ability to acquire goods etc.., So there’s no conceivable point in the continuum that is bad. It’s always good.”

              True, companies could create a 32 hour work week instead of a 40 hour work week. The big question is: will they choose to do that? Or will we have some employed people who are making great incomes with a lot of other people unemployed or undermployed? This is what I am concerned about.

              “Waitressing is already superfluous, a service we like but don’t need.”
              True, though people do like the personal touch, so I think, at least in high-end restaurants, waitresses will not disappear for a long time.
              I likewise agree with UBI, it would be a great way to solve income inequality, even possibly right now.

            • Sure, but the full time work week is only limited now because of laws. Laws that did not come about because of unprecedented technological change, but out of ethics being applied to policy. What’s to stop powerful corps from lobbying to relax those limits, and make the work week 50 hours, right now today? Nothing. These are law and policy issues.

              As I wrote above, the possible technological economic expansion might be abused by powerful corporate interests in the short term, just as they can exploit the current level of productivity/efficiency. However, I suspect there is much less reason to expect this as time moves on. For reasons more complicated than I will spell out here, exploitative practices work in the short term, but sabotage the long term. Such societies will not be able maintain the pace of innovation and development leading to technological unemployments. This dynamic is quite obvious throughout history. Dictatorships (the extreme of exploitative systems) have dysfunctional economies, staving people, and a dearth of academic, technological and economic growth. The USSR failed miserably, while sitting on the greatest volume of resources of any country in the world. Brilliant men like Einstein fled fascist Germany, helping to ensure its demise. These are not coincidences. The same is true in less extreme scenarios.