Smart systems, automation and employment: two opposing views
“Human Needs not Apply” is a video by CGP Grey that predicts automation and smart systems will make human work obsolete. It was presented on Youtube on 13 August 2014 and within 10 days received almost 2 million views. This view is in line with the Economist estimation that almost half of jobs are at risk of becoming automated in the next two decades.
Grey foresees massive job losses that is underway due to automation “as mechanical muscles pushed horses out of the economy, mechanical minds will do the same to humans”. This is a new economic situation, an economic revolution. “You may think we have been before, but we haven’t.” Old type automation replaced routine physical labor. But general purpose robots with vision can learn by watching people do it. General purpose computers are pushing humans out of the economy not immediately, not everywhere, but in large enough numbers and soon enough that it is going to be a huge problem. Technology gets better, cheaper and faster to replace any kind every job in every sector of activity: transport and driverless cars; every kind of white color job; bots in the stock market have made it a non-human endeavor; discovery and information finding; expert advice; medical treatment; even creative tasks, music writing, artificial creativity.
At the other side of the massive job loss thesis, David Autor presented a paper under the title “Polanyi’s Paradox and the Shape of Employment Growth”, which offers a conceptual and empirical overview about machine displacement of human labor and the contemporary incarnation of this displacement. Instead of massive job loss more likely is the labor market polarization leading to simultaneous growth of high-education, high-wage and low-education, low-wages jobs.
At the core of the paper is Michael Polanyi’s argument, a cornerstone of contemporary innovation theory foundation on tacit knowledge “We can know more than we can tell… The skill of a driver cannot be replaced by a thorough schooling in the theory of the motorcar; the knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology.”
In this line of thought, D. 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. In these tasks, computers are often less sophisticated than preschool age children. The interplay between machine and human comparative advantage allows computers to substitute for workers in performing routine, codifiable tasks while amplifying the comparative advantage of workers in supplying problem solving skills, adaptability, and creativity… 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”.
Author, D. (2014) “Polanyi’s Paradox and the Shape of Employment Growth”
Irwin, N. (2014) “Why the Robots Might Not Take Our Jobs After All: They Lack Common Sense“, The New York Times.