Friday, August 25, 2017

Once Again on the Robots Question


Recently, there's been an interesting three-way debate between James Surowiecki, Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein on robots and the future of jobs. Surowiecki was first out of the gate with a lengthy article in Wired, "Robopocalypse Not", making a strong case, in my view, that robots are highly unlikely to take all or even most of our jobs. He covers--as I did in my Vox article on the future of jobs--the mismatch between slow productivity growth and the supposed rise of the robots, and the lack of evidence in the historical record for high unemployment that is technologically-generated. Among other good points he makes in the article is the following:
THE PECULIAR THING about this historical moment is that we’re afraid of two contradictory futures at once. On the one hand, we’re told that robots are coming for our jobs and that their superior productivity will transform industry after industry. If that happens, economic growth will soar and society as a whole will be vastly richer than it is today. But at the same time, we’re told that we’re in an era of secular stagnation, stuck with an economy that’s doomed to slow growth and stagnant wages. In this world, we need to worry about how we’re going to support an aging population and pay for rising health costs, because we’re not going to be much richer in the future than we are today. Both of these futures are possible. But they can’t both come true. Fretting about both the rise of the robots and about secular stagnation doesn’t make any sense. Yet that’s precisely what many intelligent people are doing.

The irony of our anxiety about automation is that if the predictions about a robot-dominated future were to come true, a lot of our other economic concerns would vanish. A recent study by Accenture, for instance, suggests that the implementation of AI, broadly defined, could lift annual GDP growth in the US by two points (to 4.6 percent). A growth rate like that would make it easy to deal with the cost of things like Social Security and Medicare and the rising price of health care. It would lead to broader wage growth. And while it would complicate the issue of how to divide the economic pie, it’s always easier to divide a growing pie than a shrinking one.
Alas, the future this study envisions seems to be very far off. To be sure, the fact that fears about automation have been proved false in the past doesn’t mean they will continue to be so in the future, and all of those long-foretold positive feedback loops exponential growth may abruptly kick in someday. But it isn’t easy to see how we’ll get there from here anytime soon, given how little companies are investing in new technology and how slowly the economy is growing. In that sense, the problem we’re facing isn’t that the robots are coming. It’s that they aren’t. 
Get it? If this were really happening, we'd be rich (rich I tell you!)--and that would be great. Unfortunately, that does not, as yet, appear to be the case.

Kevin Drum, an adamant proponent of the robots-will-take-all-our-jobs thesis, replied to Surowiecki in a post on his blog, which argued, in essence, that This Time Is Different because AI is a true game-changer but it isn't really here yet so that's why slow productivity growth, etc.

Ezra Klein did not find Drum's argument convincing. Klein replies as follows:
I take slow productivity growth more seriously than Drum does. It’s true we don’t yet have AI. But we have seen an explosion of information technology that should’ve put many jobs at risk, and in some cases clearly did. The stories we can tell about why ATMs would replace all bank tellers, or online learning would displace most teachers, or digital diagnostic tools would make many doctors superfluous, are at least as convincing as the stories we can tell about AI-driven job displacement, and the technology is already here.
And yet there are more bank tellers today than there were in the 1970s. And online learning hasn’t dented the demand for teachers. And WebMD has mostly sent people scurrying to see their doctors. What happened?
Toward the end of his post, Drum suggests that a better argument for why AI might fail to deliver mass unemployment is that “robots will be smart but never very sociable, so humans will all move into jobs that require social skills.” This, however, is part of the explanation for why IT hasn’t done more to move the productivity needle either. People want to interact with other people, even when they’d be almost as well off interacting with a computer interface. And so even when IT makes it cost-effective to replace people with computers, that often leads companies to plow the savings into more people to work alongside the computers (which is largely what happened in banking).
The productivity story isn’t surefire proof that AI won’t upend employment. But it should make us skeptical of confident predictions that it will.
Which brings us to the industrial revolution. Drum is right that we shouldn’t assume a past period of technological change is directly analogous to a future period of technological change. But one lesson of the past few hundred years of technological change is that human beings are pretty good at inventing things to do after automation pushes out the things we used to do.
As I understand the argument for AI-driven mass unemployment, the basic theory is that human beings won’t be needed to do most jobs, and so they will be replaced, and left in a state of useless pleasure seeking and mischief making…..
[But] humans today are [already] a massive useless class. What sort of job is “editor of an explanatory journalism web site” next to “farmer”? Would our ancestors value the work of psychologists or customer service representatives or wedding planners or computer coders?
But this, to me, is the story of labor markets in the past few hundred years: As technology drives people out of the most necessary jobs, we invent less necessary jobs that we nevertheless imbue with profound meaning and even economic value.
The AI revolution, if it comes, does not seem likely to follow a wildly different path. The technology’s diffusion is likely to be slower than people think — I suspect we will have trucks capable of making driverless deliveries long before regulators permit them to operate without a human in the cab, and computers capable of making diagnoses for decades before human doctors aren’t required to look over and explain the readout — but as it comes, humans will find things other humans want them to do, and they’ll decide those things have value. We’re good at that.
Yes, we are good at that. And that's why this time is not likely to be different. Now if those robots could just hurry up and get here so we could all be rich.....

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