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As a person interested in science and the future, I've wondered for some time about the economic implications of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence.  As these technologies develop, they will become capable of doing an increasing number of tasks which people currently do on their jobs.  Some readers may not believe machines can attain true conscious thought, and therefore can never do some jobs, but it seems to me that a good simulation of thought - limited in scope to the needs of a single occupation - would be sufficient for many jobs.  That could mean a critical mass of people would be left without jobs, resulting in an economic crisis the market economy could not follow a business cycle out of.  We could have the massive hardships of the Great Depression without hope of it ending.  And as time went by, automation could gradually take away most of the remaining jobs.

There's a new article / interview at the Scientific American website on this topic.  MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson has such things to say as:

Throughout most of modern history, productivity and employment have grown side by side. But starting about 15 years ago they started becoming decoupled. Productivity continued to grow, even accelerate, but employment stagnated and even fell, as did median wages for the people who were still working.


But there’s no economic law that says everyone has to benefit equally from increased productivity. It’s entirely possible that some people benefit a lot more than others or that some people are made worse off. And as it turns out, for the past 10 to 15 years it’s gone that way. The pie has gotten bigger but most of the increase in income has gone to less than 1 percent of the population. Those at the 50th percentile or lower have actually done worse in absolute terms.


The share of income going to capital owners has grown relative to the share of income going to labor providers. ...when you replace human workers in a factory with robots, the capital owners will earn a bigger share of the income from that factor. That’s been happening at an accelerating pace in recent years. You may be surprised to hear that for most of the 20th century that did not happen. In fact, it didn’t really happen until about 15 years ago.


Technology has always been creating and destroying jobs. Automatic threshers replaced 30 percent of labor force in agriculture in the 19th century. But it happened over a long period of time, and people could find new kinds of work to do. This time it’s happening faster. And technological change is affecting more industries simultaneously.

Brynjolfsson suggests there are tasks such as figuring how shapes go together that humans can do well and computers do poorly.  So, he thinks the future of human employment may be in such niches.  I can't say I'm convinced either that computers can never do it or that such areas can provide adequate jobs for all those who need to work for a living.

Now here's the ultimate problem with market economies.  As automation takes over more and more occupations, it's not the people who are at risk of losing their jobs who will be owning and controlling the job-replacing machines.  It's not that an average worker will own a robot which will go out and work and bring back a paycheck to pay the family's bills.  The machines will be owned by the 1% or 0.01%.  Just as the rich don't want to pay their fair share of taxes today, just as the rich contribute a smaller percent of their wealth each year to charities for the truly needy, just as the rich are trying to slash the social safety net - the owners of the machines aren't going to want to help the permanently unemployed masses who have been replaced by automation.

Automation could mean machines doing more of the work and working people having more leisure time.  It's working people who have always sweated to make the goods and services for everyone.  It's working people who had to do the work that created automation machines.  But the rich will say, "These are my machines!  You can't have what they make unless you pay my price!  If you can't afford my price because I threw you out of work after you built my machines, too bad!"

We need a smart economy that shares the benefits, especially to those who actually did the work.

   *   *   *   *   *   *  

From an economic point of view, the question isn't even whether machines will replace 50% or more of human workers.  If automation were to cause people to lose jobs more quickly than new jobs could employ those people - even just over a period of a certain number of years - the fall in consumer spending could result in an economic downturn.  That would mean unemployment would increase for market reasons.  To get out of the economic crisis, it would be necessary to employ both the people who lost jobs directly from automation and those who lost jobs for market reasons (indirectly from automation).  Technological progress would continue during the bad economy.  So, with more automation possibilities, too few people might be hired.  The downturn could stretch on like the Great Depression.  Only now, automation might prevent enough re-employment to end the crisis.  As time goes by, further automation could gradually eliminate even more jobs.

      *   *   *   *  

We're told that the jobs that will be automated first will be the ones which do low-paid unskilled work.  And some argue that the solution is to educate people so they can do skilled jobs.  It's not as simple as that.

First of all, not everyone is equally good at school and skilled professions.  We need to ask how we will treat those who have their jobs taken, but truly lack the requirements for the jobs which remain for people.  If we insist they must work to earn a living, perhaps we need to refrain from automating certain jobs so they can continue to work.  If society decides it would be better off automating every job John Smith would be able to do, society should not punish John Smith for not having a job.

It won't always be the low-pay jobs.  Suppose a manufacturer is able to make a machine that can do Occupation A and a machine that can do Occupation B.  Suppose it costs the same amount to manufacture both kinds of machines, so businesses would have to pay $40,000 per year for a machine to replace one worker.  It would be hard to sell machines to replace Occupation A employees, if human workers are typically paid $30,000 / year.  If Occupation B human workers usually get paid $80,000 a year, it would be easy to sel those machines.

People training for jobs today already face a problem:  When they're finished with the training, what will the job market be for that occupation?  Today, it's a matter of whether too many students are preparing for the same jobs and other market factors.  But automation will add the question of how long will an occupation continue to be open to humans.  Some people will get an education in an area they have been assured won't be automated, but will find machines taking over soon after they start.  And if we don't have a smart economy, they'll be stuck with student debt, but no job..

      *   *   *   *   *   *

How long will it take to replace jobs that require a computer to act like a human employee?

What's required for that is not full artificial intelligence, but what could be called "professional intelligence".  The computer doesn't have to know how to feed or dress itself, to brush teeth or comb hair, to walk or drive a car, to have any ability for interpersonal relationships other than employee-customer.  It only needs to know as much language, history, math, science and other academic subjects as is demanded by one profession.  It doesn't have to know about animals, plants, stores, transportation, popular TV shows, government or so many other things.

It doesn't have to pass a Turing test, because it doesn't have to do everything a person can, or to fool someone trying to determine whether it's a real human.  It doesn't have to have the flexibility a human has to work in different occupations.

It doesn't need so many human capabilities, making such systems isn't as far off as making genuine artificial intelligence.  Our jobs can disappear sooner than some think.

Originally posted to workingwords on Wed Mar 13, 2013 at 09:48 AM PDT.

Also republished by Anti-Capitalist Chat.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Walter Ruther (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    workingwords, badger

    CIO President Walter Reuther was being
    shown through the Ford Motor plant in
    Cleveland recently.

    A company official proudly pointed to some
    new automatically controlled machines and
    asked Reuther: “How are you going to collect
    union dues from these guys?”

    Reuther replied: “How are you going to get
    them to buy Fords?”

    •  Lemmings (0+ / 0-)

      A market economy makes companies act like the proverbial lemmings in this regard.  If automation can reduce the per-unit production cost, some company will be tempted to try to get more market share by using automation and lowering prices.  If one company does it, the other companies in that industry "have to" do it as well.  And the process goes on until we all go over the cliff.

  •  distribution of wealth issue (0+ / 0-)

    You can take this to its logical extreme and see where you get.

    In an ideal utopia world where all work in providing for needed and less needed but wanted living goods is done by robots/machines, then how would anyone "pay for" those goods? If noone could, why produce anything? Not profitable to the capitalist/machine owner. All people would die, and the capitalist would be licrke King Mithras, dead too. This is an absurdity which shows that if automation seriously replaces human wage-work, then wage can´t be the basis for human living any more. Then, only "wealth" could be, which means that in such a situation, either wealth must be some thing of an entitlement - that everyone gets - or the system collapses.

    The productivity progress is evident and real. We see it every day in my plant. We make steel: today with 8000 people in a plant, we have the same output in tonnage as five years ago with ten thousand. This is a real process that you describe, and it is reality that all of the benefits accrue to capital only: in our case, none of the remaining workers has progressed any bit in real wage, but those not working here anymore have lost it entirely. The shrinking labor cost benefit also has not gone to "the owners" (we are a privately owned firm). It has nearly entirely gone to the banks, which provided the credits to see us (barely) through the crisis, for the price of taking all the gains. Banks of course is capital. But not productively invested ownership capital: purely rate of return driven financial capital.

    So yes, you are right in your worries, but in fact the process runs at full speed in our everyday life, and it is the beginning stage of a system collapse. A lot of suffering will come from this.

  •  Good analysis (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    workingwords, jjohnjj

    The MIT guy is missing part of the equation though. It isn't just designing machines to replace humans - it's redesigning products so that humans aren't needed and machines can do the work. Here's a couple examples:

    The first has been around for years and went by the name of "Scantron" - that's any kind of test, or even election ballot, where the test-taker or voter fills in little circles, and then a machine reads the ballot and scores the test or counts the vote. A machine can score 20, 30 or a few hundred tests in a minute or two - something that would take a teacher an hour or more.

    As a more involved example, take any kind of product that comes in a case, say a cosmetic compact or a piece of electronics. You can eliminate the fasteners so the product snaps together - that's something a machine can do easily (although they can handle nuts and bolts or welding or other assembly methods too). Then you design the assembly process so that the snap together parts come out the box and onto the production line already oriented correctly - then the machine doesn't have to understand shapes or colors or anything other than "pick up the part and snap it onto the mating part". Although machines and machine vision can handle more complex scenarios too.

    As the cost of automating production becomes cheaper, you can achieve even more savings by redesigning the product and the manufacturing process to accommodate automation.

    The things that are most difficult to automate are irregular objects where redesign is difficult, for example, chickens. It would be difficult (IMO - I might even be wrong here) to design a machine to gut and clean a chicken, or even a cow. Redesign, through genetics to make chickens uniform or by growing meat in vats rather than in animals, is a difficult challenge too. Similarly, most, but probably not all, kinds of surgery probably couldn't be completely automated in the near future.

    But even things like clothing manufacturing or hair-styling could be automated eventually, if 'fashionable' is altered to be things machines can do easily and economically. My neighbor already cuts her own hair with a "Flowbee", and some knitting operations are highly automated.

    Modern revolutions have succeeded because of solidarity, not force.

    by badger on Wed Mar 13, 2013 at 12:32:14 PM PDT

  •  Perhaps a shorter work week is the solution... (0+ / 0-)

    ...but French conservatives have been fighting tooth and nail to reverse the 35-hour week established in 2000. Although it's still on the books, the law took a big hit when new legislation was passed in 2008 giving employers power to negotiate individual deals with unions, trading extra holidays in return for a longer workweek.

    The 35-hour week never did result in additional hiring. It did result in demands for greater per-hour productivity from workers and tons of overtime pay, which employers chose to pay rather than increase staff.

    The latest Eurostat report on full-time employment says the British work 42.2 hours a week on average and Germans work 40.7 hours, while the French work 39.5 hours. Danes are at the bottom of the scale at 37.7 hours.

    It's hard for one country to forge ahead on this when their industries compete with foreign workers putting in longer hours.

    Still, I think this is the future. There are intangible benefits to giving people more time to commute by public transit, more time to spend with their children, more time to eat sensibly and exercise properly.

    I can envision a two-tiered economy in which workers spend only ten or fifteen years at a full-time pace, producing the essentials of civilization, and then "retire" into a slow paced, part-time, full-employment economy producing non-essentials.

    In the first economy, few workers and many robots would produce basic foodstuffs in highly automated industries.

    In the second economy, many workers would grow local organic produce, make artisanal cheese, produce hand-made dinnerware, and sell these thing to each other.

    It's just a vision. I don't know how to organize it economically... but it probably isn't gonna be capitalism or socialism as we know them today.

    Have you noticed?
    Politicians who promise LESS government
    only deliver BAD government.

    by jjohnjj on Wed Mar 13, 2013 at 10:19:49 PM PDT

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