Andrew McAfee: Are droids taking our jobs?

Speaker

Andrew McAfee is the associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studying the ways information technology (IT) affects businesses and business as a whole.

Summary

As technology advances, the media focus is on how this will affect employment. There are clear signs that technology is decreasing employment rate – with the recovery from the last recession increasing GDP and spending without an increase in jobs.Projecting into the future, Andrew used GDP and productivity growth to predict the in the future jobs will decrease – and this assuming the past will continue without a ‘step change’. Andrew thinks this is very optimistic – in truth there will be a step change that will make this gap far wider still. “you ain’t seen nothing yet”.

In recent years computers have encroached on tasks previously thought exclusively human – in knowledge work. Translation, and journalism have began to be taken over by programs. These do the job, but are criticised for being simple and sometimes flawed. However if these grow at the pace of Moore’s law (which they will), they will be 16 times better in 6 years. In the physical world, Google’s autonomous car is doing a great job and will likely replace truck drivers. The conclusion to this is that computers are going to take over jobs, but that this is not necessarily a bad thing – that it will lead to a utopian future (rather than a dystopia).

Looking at the ‘great achievements’ in human history (religious, empires, wars, disease, age of exploration), none had any significant impact on human population size, or social development. The only one to cause a big step was development of the steam engine and the industrial revolution – which suddenly had an exponential effect on both population and development. This overcame the limitations of human muscles, just as AI revolutions will overcome the limitations of the individual human mind.

Currently innovation is moving away from the ‘ivory tower’ and becoming more widely distributed, merit based and transparent. Technology is giving profound benefits to the wealthy but also to the poor. An economical study of Indian fishing villages showed a much more efficient, fair and less wasteful economy once mobile phones were introduced.

The droids are taking our jobs, but this will free up humans to do other things. We will move on to other endeavours – reducing poverty and living more lightly on the planet. What we do with these machines will make a mockery of all human achievements before it: just as the steam engine did in its time. Ken Jennings – the ultimate Jeopardy champion lost to Watson by a factor of 3:1 in points. One of his answers included the line “I for one welcome our new computer overlords”.

My Thoughts

I’ve looked at Andrew’s talks before (https://tedsummaries.com/2014/11/20/andrew-mcafee-what-will-future-jobs-look-like/), and “are droids taking our jobs” covers similar material to the more recent “what will future jobs look like”. I think I got more out of “what will future jobs look like” – I suggest seeing that one first.

Having said that, the look at previous human achievements was fascinating, though I’m sure on a different scale the impacts of other technologies (agriculture, use of metals) would have been visible. I agree that AI will similarly give a clear step change – one completely different from previous (and still massive) computing achievements over the previous 70 years.

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Andrew McAfee: What will future jobs look like?

Speaker

Andrew McAfee is the associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studying the ways information technology (IT) affects businesses and business as a whole.

Summary

Prophecy is hard, but it is easy to see that in the future there will be more things that sound like science fiction, and fewer jobs. Even in the near future drivers are being replaced with automated cars, something similar to Siri and Watson will take over customer service jobs, and automatic trolleys can automate warehouses. Replacing workers with technology has been happening for 200 years, but most people still had jobs. However, now machines are picking up skills they haven’t had: to understand, speak, think. Jobs will be replaced with machines, but this is wonderful economic news for 2 reasons.

  • Technology is the reason that economies can grow, prices can come down, and quality continue to increase all at the same time.
  • Machines mean that people don’t have to do these jobs any more. No more drudgery or toil, we can evolve society in a new way – to become innovators and explorers and thinkers.

So what are the challenges in this transition?

The first is Economic: it is tough to sell your labour in a world full of machines. Over recent decades company profits have increased while their labour costs (and jobs) have decreased. In the future companies will rely on a prosperous middle class to sell their wares, but the middle class is now under threat. Median income is currently decreasing, while inequality in society is increasing. To take examples of a standard white male US blue collar worker and a similar white collar professional, in the 1960s they were quite similar at 80 and 90% employment. Since then (when automation was starting), the blue collar worker’s employment rate has dropped below 60%, blue collar marriages have become much less happy (from 60% in the 1960s to 20% now), blue collars have disengaged from politics, and they are 5 times more likely to be imprisoned now than 50 years ago. White collar trends have stayed close to where they were in the 1960s.

So how do we deal with the disengagement of blue collar workers? The simple short term solution is to build infrastructure, encourage entrepeneurs and educate to create people who can be employed. But to deal with a more total replacement of workers with machines needs a deeper reaction: such as a guaranteed minimum income. This is often decried as socialism or encouraging laziness, but the US has lower social mobility than European countries with social safety nets.

Education is one solution to the major issues. Primary school education is currently pitched to create factory workers or blue collar clerks – Andrew wants to retool it to aim at a different goal. Andrew is optimistic that things will improve, but the issues need to be embraced, confronted and radical solutions devised. The facts are now becoming more widely known: that the machine age is coming. Abraham Lincoln stated that “if given the truth they (people) can be depended on to face any national crisis”.

My Thoughts

The talk was forseeing a world very different to the one we know now, and was optimistic that humanity could work out the challenges posed by massive unemployment (at least in the jobs we now can see). Personally I am disappointed it only focussed on the decline of blue collar jobs, as I am interested in what would happen if professional jobs were made redundant as well.

Regardless, his suggestion of a minimum income seems to be the only solution to massive unemployment. Nothing else makes sense in a world where (most) people aren’t needed to do jobs – the alternatives are insane: either compelling people to apply for jobs that don’t exist or to stifle innovation so the jobs still exist.