dw2

7 May 2011

Workers beware: the robots are coming

Filed under: books, challenge, disruption, Economics, futurist, robots — David Wood @ 9:07 pm

What’s your reaction to the suggestion that, at some stage in the next 10-30 years, you will lose your job to a robot?

Here, by the word “robot”, I’m using shorthand for “automation” – a mixture of improvements in hardware and software. The suggestion is that automation will continue to improve until it reaches the stage when it is cheaper for your employer to use computers and/or robots to do your job, than it is to continue employing you. This change has happened in the past with all manner of manual and/or repetitive work. Could it happen to you?

People typically have one of three reactions to this suggestion:

  1. “My job is too complex, too difficult, too human-intense, etc, for a robot to be able to do it in the foreseeable future. I don’t need to worry.”
  2. “My present job may indeed be outsourced to robots, but over the same time period, new kinds of job will be created, and I’ll be able to do one of these instead. I don’t need to worry.”
  3. “When the time comes that robots can do all the kinds of work that I can do, better than me, we’ll be living in an economy of plenty. I won’t actually need to work – I’ll be happy to enjoy lots more leisure time. I don’t need to worry.”

Don’t need to worry? Think again. That’s effectively the message in Martin Ford’s 2009 book “The lights in the tunnel“. (If you haven’t heard of that book, perhaps it’s because the title is a touch obscure. After all, who wants to read about “lights in a tunnel”?)

The subtitle gives a better flavour of the content: “Automation, accelerating technology, and the economy of the future“. And right at the top of the front cover, there’s yet another subtitle: “A journey to the economic landscape of the coming decades“. But neither of these subtitles conveys the challenge which the book actually addresses. This is a book that points out real problems with increasing automation:

  • Automation will cause increasing numbers of people to lose their current jobs
  • Accelerating automation will mean that robots can quickly become able to do more jobs – their ability to improve and learn will far outpace that of human workers – so the proportion of people who are unemployed will grow and grow
  • Without proper employment, a large proportion of consumers will be deprived of income, and will therefore lack the spending power which is necessary for the continuing vibrancy of the economy
  • Even as technology improves, the economy will stagnate, with disastrous consequences
  • This is likely to happen long before technologies such as nanotech have reached their full potential – so that any ideas of us existing at that time in an economy of plenty are flawed.

Although the author could have chosen a better title for his book, the contents are well argued, and easy to read. They deserve a much wider hearing.  They underscore the important theme that the process of ongoing technological improvement is far from being an inevitable positive.

There are essentially two core threads to the book:

  • A statement of the problem – this effectively highlights issues with each of the reactions 1-3 listed earlier;
  • Some tentative ideas for a possible solution.

The book looks backwards in history, as well as forwards to the future. For example, it includes interesting short commentaries on both Marx and Keynes. One of the most significant backward glances considers the case of the Luddites – the early 19th century manufacturing workers in the UK who feared that their livelihoods would be displaced by factory automation. Doesn’t history show us that such fears are groundless? Didn’t the Luddites (and their descendants) in due course find new kinds of employment? Didn’t automation create new kinds of work, at the same time as it destroyed some existing kinds of work? And won’t that continue to happen?

Well, it’s a matter of pace.  One of most striking pictures in the book is a rough sketch of the variation over time of the comparative ability of computers and humans to perform routine jobs:

As Martin Ford explains:

I’ve chosen an arbitrary point on the graph to indicate the year 1812. After that year, we can reasonably assume that human capability continued to rise quite steeply until we reach modern times. The steep part of the graph reflects dramatic improvements to our overall living conditions in the world’s more advanced countries:

  • Vastly improved nutrition, public health, and environmental regulations have allowed us to remain relatively free from disease and reach our full biological potential
  • Investment in literacy and in primary and secondary education, as well as access to college and advanced education for some workers, has greatly increased overall capability
  • A generally richer and more varied existence, including easy access to books, media, new technologies and the ability to travel long distances, has probably had a positive impact on our ability to comprehend and deal with complex issues.

A free download of the entire book is available from the author’s website.  I’ll leave it to you to evaluate the author’s arguments for why the two curves in this sketch have the shape that they do.  To my mind, these arguments have a lot of merit.

The point where these two curves cross – potentially a few decades into the future – will represent a new kind of transition point for the economy – perhaps the mother of all economic disruptions.  Yes, there will still be some new jobs created.  Indeed, in a blogpost last year, “Accelerating automation and the future of work“, I listed 20 new occupations that people could be doing in the next 20 years:

  1. Body part maker
  2. Nano-medic
  3. Pharmer of genetically engineered crops and livestock
  4. Old age wellness manager/consultant
  5. Memory augmentation surgeon
  6. ‘New science’ ethicist
  7. Space pilots, tour guides and architects
  8. Vertical farmers
  9. Climate change reversal specialist
  10. Quarantine enforcer
  11. Weather modification police
  12. Virtual lawyer
  13. Avatar manager / devotees / virtual teachers
  14. Alternative vehicle developers
  15. Narrowcasters
  16. Waste data handler
  17. Virtual clutter organiser
  18. Time broker / Time bank trader
  19. Social ‘networking’ worker
  20. Personal branders

However, the lifetimes of these jobs (before they too can be handled by improved robots) will shrink and shrink.  For a less esoteric example, consider the likely fate of a relatively new profession, radiology.  As Martin Ford explains:

A radiologist is a medical doctor who specializes in interpreting images generated by various medical scanning technologies. Before the advent of modern computer technology, radiologists focused exclusively on X-rays. This has now been expanded to include all types of medical imaging, including CT scans, PET scans, mammograms, etc.

To become a radiologist you need to attend college for four years, and then medical school for another four. That is followed by another five years of internship and residency, and often even more specialized training after that. Radiology is one of the most popular specialties for newly minted doctors because it offers relatively high pay and regular work hours; radiologists generally don’t need to work weekends or handle emergencies.

In spite of the radiologist’s training requirement of at least thirteen additional years beyond high school, it is conceptually quite easy to envision this job being automated. The primary focus of the job is to analyze and evaluate visual images. Furthermore, the parameters of each image are highly defined since they are often coming directly from a computerized scanning device. Visual pattern recognition software is a rapidly developing field that has already produced significant results…

Radiology is already subject to significant offshoring to India and other places. It is a simple matter to transmit digital scans to an overseas location for analysis. Indian doctors earn as little as 10 percent of what American radiologists are paid… Automation will often come rapidly on the heels of offshoring, especially if the job focuses purely on technical analysis with little need for human interaction. Currently, U.S. demand for radiologists continues to expand because of the increase in use of diagnostic scans such as mammograms. However, this seems likely to slow as automation and offshoring advance and become bigger players in the future. The graduating medical students who are now rushing into radiology for its high pay and relative freedom from the annoyances of dealing with actual patients may eventually come to question the wisdom of their decision

Radiologists are far from being the only “high-skill” occupation that is under risk from this trend.  Jobs which involve a high degree of “expert system” knowledge will come under threat from increasingly expert AI systems.  Jobs which involve listening to human speech will come under threat from increasingly accurate voice recognition systems.  And so on.

This leaves two questions:

  1. Can we look forward, as some singularitarians and radical futurists assert, to incorporating increasing technological smarts within our own human nature, allowing us in a sense to merge with the robots of the future?  In that case, a scenario of “the robots will take all our jobs” might change to “substantially enhanced humans will undertake new types of work”
  2. Alternatively, if robots do much more of the work needed within society, how will the transition be handled, to a society in which humans have much more leisure time?

I’ll return to the first of these questions in a subsequent blogpost.  Martin Ford’s book has a lot to say about the second of these questions.  And he recommends a series of ideas for consideration:

  • Without large numbers of well-paid consumers able to purchase goods, the global economy risks going into decline, at the same time as technology has radically improved
  • With fewer people working, there will be much less income tax available to governments.  Taxation will need to switch towards corporation tax and consumption taxes
  • With more people receiving handouts from the state, there’s a risk of loss of many of aspects of economic structure which previously have been thought essential
  • We need to give more thought, now, to ideas for differential state subsidy of different kinds of non-work activity – to incentivise certain kinds of activity.  That way, we’ll be ready for the increasing disturbances placed on our economy by the rise of the robots.

For further coverage of these and related ideas, see Martin Ford’s blog on the subject, http://econfuture.wordpress.com/.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] X-rays and CAT scans (traditionally performed by well trained and high paid radiologists) because according to the famous computer programmer and writer Martin Ford: “Now, machines are getting much […]

    Pingback by Robot Invasion « FUTURIMA — 11 May 2011 @ 6:02 am


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