Automation Debate: Will Smart Machines Disrupt the Economic Order or Not?
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In the dialogue about increasing workplace automation, a lot of the discussion that occurs online follows the pattern of the following Financial Times discussion, which is aimed largely at educated people who are concerned about their own future employment. The argument typically splits between those who think new jobs will develop to replace the old ones versus Cassandras who believe the new technology really is a step into the unknown territory of extreme unemployment for knowledge workers.

That’s an important discussion to have, but it leaves out a rather large segment of the working population, namely non-college graduates — that’s around 70 percent of Americans. Many of those people have already been economically mauled by decades of outsourcing and immigration and now are further battered by automation. (See my 2014 Social Contract article, Three Stakes in the Heart of the American Dream: Immigration, outsourcing, and smart machines crush citizen hopes.) The blue-collar middle class has nearly disappeared along with the outsourced factories, except in small examples like bus driving in some locales (an occupation which is also threatened by automation).

A 2013 Oxford University study about the future of employment estimated that 47 percent of American jobs could be taken by automation within 20 years. The Gartner tech consulting firm has forecast that one-third of jobs will be performed by smart machines in 2025, just 9 years from now.

These are disturbing predictions, and should certainly be a part of the political debate occurring now, but aren’t. Certainly the government shouldn’t be importing millions of third-world immigrant workers when jobs like strawberry picker, restaurant employee and driver are being rapidly automated. Otherwise, a future Ferguson-style riot may take place in Spanish.

The Financial Times video following presents both sides of the automation debate about whether the roboticized future will be wonderful or a horror. Representing the Cassandra side is Martin Ford, author of the important Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. An Indian named Guruduth Banavar represents the positive view that robots will help, not replace, humans because new professions will arise to manage the automated workplace, or something like that. The problem is the math doesn’t work for the millions of people who aren’t robot scientists.

ANDREW HILL: Humans vs machines is a story as old as the history of automation; whether in the fields or the factories, with the invention of new technology always comes the promise of a revolution in the way we work and just as surely fears that jobs that can now be done by machines will not be replaced. After an unsettling transition period, new jobs have always evolved. Is it different this time?

MARTIN FORD: I believe we are now at the moment where the technology is finally there, when the disruption is going to happen and the fact that we’ve had these false alarms so many times in the past really makes it difficult for people to accept it, and so that’s where a lot of the resistance comes from I think.

HILL: Martin Ford’s book the Rise of the Robots, winner of this year’s Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year award, paints a bleak picture of a future in which machines displace humans in all but a few high-end roles. He prescribes radical economic solutions including a universal citizens dividend but warns that disruption will extend to professionals who may previously have considered themselves immune.

FORD: You see an impact now on on entry-level journalism and on document review in law firms. I think that will scale out; it will begin to impact really anyone who is doing any kind of routine analysis or writing, you know, reports to upper management where you come in and you do the same type of work again and again. All of that is going to be susceptible eventually.

HILL: But technologies such as those working at the forefront of cognitive technology at IBM see the future differently. More sophisticated machines will work in tandem with humans, opening up new possibilities in areas of work as yet an imagined, just as the last wave of computer-driven change created the profession of software engineer.

GURUDUTH BANAVAR: In the future when we get into this world of large-scale data, knowledge and cognitive systems I think there’s going to be a similar kind of new profession in the area of what I would call knowledge engineering which has many aspects to it. It starts from taking raw data and cleansing, enriching, curating the data for consumption by these cognitive assistants, but it also goes all the way up to creating and representing knowledge from different areas which needs to be complemented by the more statistical machine-learning kinds of approaches that that need to be applied to large-scale raw data.

HILL: IBM’s Watson, the highest profile cognitive system, has already taken on and beaten human beings at quiz shows but Banavar sees such technology as a way of assisting human experts not supplanting them.

BANAVAR: Well my view is that there are so many dimensions of intelligence that in fact there are many unknown unknowns about what intelligence means. We argue about it, but we don’t really understand we’ve only scratched the surface of intelligence, so I think a better approach for us right now would be to build machines that augment human intelligence, that solve practical problems and that help us deal with the huge amount of data and knowledge that’s been generated in the world.

HILL: As office workers adapt to the new technologies, both Banavar and Ford believe that computer will help them in the transition to the new era by educating them in new ways and skills. But the key to whether this transformation undermines or merely unsettles economies and societies lies in how far and how fast the change progresses.

FORD: I think even people that don’t entirely buy into this idea of extensive automation would agree that clearly things are going to move faster and faster in the future. I mean I don’t think there’s any doubt that opportunities and perhaps the entire occupations are going to evaporate. People will, if they want to remain relevant, have to retrain or find something else to do. So I think the most important thing going forward is to be in a position where you’re equipped to do that.

HILL: Ultimately, techno optimists and pessimists may not be as far apart as they seem. The revolutionary nature of cognitive technology could hold great promise. Both agree on the need for individuals, businesses and societies to adapt. Both think that education and re-education can smooth the transition, but the areas where they do differ critically — on the pace and scale of the change — are full of uncertainty. Who is right will determine whether the rise of the robots leads to a brighter future for many workers or a much darker one. — Andrew Hill, Financial Times, London.

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