February 14th, 2011

New technologies have often displaced jobs, but historically, humans have adapted so that the long-term effect of those new technologies on employment has been positive.

But what if new technologies start to displace jobs faster than humans can adapt?  When that happens — and I’ve suggested that it may be happening already — economic growth and related technological investment will cause societies effectively to consume their own consumers. Now even the New York Times seems to be on board with this idea.  But will it matter at all?

From today’s Times, an article by John Markoff:

Traditionally, economists have argued that while new forms of automation may displace jobs in the short run, over longer periods of time economic growth and job creation have continued to outpace any job-killing technologies. For example, over the past century and a half the shift from being a largely agrarian society to one in which less than 1 percent of the United States labor force is in agriculture is frequently cited as evidence of the economy’s ability to reinvent itself.

That, however, was before machines began to “understand” human language. Rapid progress in natural language processing is beginning to lead to a new wave of automation that promises to transform areas of the economy that have until now been untouched by technological change.

“As designers of tools and products and technologies we should think more about these issues,” said Pattie Maes, a computer scientist at the M.I.T. Media Lab. Not only do designers face ethical issues, she argues, but increasingly as skills that were once exclusively human are simulated by machines, their designers are faced with the challenge of rethinking what it means to be human.

I.B.M.’s executives have said they intend to commercialize Watson to provide a new class of question-answering systems in business, education and medicine. The repercussions of such technology are unknown, but it is possible, for example, to envision systems that replace not only human experts, but hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs throughout the economy and around the globe. Virtually any job that now involves answering questions and conducting commercial transactions by telephone will soon be at risk. It is only necessary to consider how quickly A.T.M.’s displaced human bank tellers to have an idea of what could happen.

From what we’ve seen in the US economy just in the last two years, i.e., strong growth accompanied by a declining participation in the workforce, it would seem that the “ourobouros” situation can continue for a while, as the increasing wealth of asset owners and the higher-skilled compensates for the departure of the lower-skilled from the productive parts of the economy.

As that trend intensifies, it should create a huge social tension.  On one side are the people who benefit enormously from this progress — especially the owners of companies, such as IBM and Amazon and Google and Facebook, that use technology to leverage profits and minimize human employment; plus their intellectual cheerleaders, such as Ray Kurzweil, who see a kind of techno-nirvana on the horizon.

On the other side … are just us ordinary worker-bees, who are steadily being devalued, disemployed and demoralized by all this “progress.”  Will we take to the streets, reject the notion that technology should freely evolve — a notion at the core of Western culture — and set about creating more humanely-ordered societies?  Or will we be successfully anesthetized and neutralized by our commercial overlords — e.g., with ever more sophisticated drugs and media technologies?

Does the latter idea seem too far out and dystopian to you?  Seems to me it’s happening already.


P.S.  Here’s a clueless summing-up by WSJ columnist Andy Kessler today (2/17):

Fortunately, history shows that labor-saving machines haven’t decreased overall employment even when they have made certain jobs obsolete. Ultimately the economic growth created by new [technology] always overwhelms the drag from jobs destroyed—if policy makers let it happen.

Yeah, it’s always that way, Andy — until it isn’t.

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