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Jobs, robots and self-driving vehicles

January 15th, 2017

Lately I’ve been reading Tim Dunlop’s excellent book Why the future is workless , and thinking about the issues it raises, particularly in the light of the prospect of autonomous vehicles and other transport technologies. Tim raises the obvious question: what will happen to people who currently drive for a living, and the broader issue of whether any kind of work will survive the process of automation.

Dealing with the second question first, labour-saving technological progress (aka automation) has been going on since the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. Until recently, it seemed (to me, at any rate) as if the process was decelerating, with technological progress being confined to information and communications technology. But, as I said in my previous post, the technological revolution seems, quite suddenly, to be affecting the transport sector. Looking at recent progress, I’d say that, within a decade or so, autonomous vehicles will probably be as cheap as human-driven ones, and safer than the average human driver, at least in for the kinds of travel typically associated with transport sector jobs.

There’s plenty of room for dispute about estimates like this. But, even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean that transport employment is going to disappear in the next ten years. It would probably take another ten years for sales of human-driven vehicles to drop to low levels, and another ten or twenty for them to disappear from the fleet.

In the meantime, technological change in the form of online shopping is likely to generate increased employment in goods delivery. The fact that, nearly 15 years after it became a major phenomenon, online shopping has not prevented growth in retail employment is itself an indication of how slowly these processes move.

Still, once the transition to autonomous vehicles starts, I’d expect to see transport employment dropping by 2 to 3 per cent a year. Using the Rule of 72, that would imply a reduction of 50 per cent over 24 to 36 years. And, if the tech revolution spreads more broadly, this could happen in sectors other than transport. Even so, this won’t happen evenly, so the rate at which jobs are displaced will be less than the rate in sectors where the transition is taking palce.

There’s nothing unprecedented in this rate of change, and no necessary reason why it should produce social dislocation. That doesn’t mean that we should accept the Pollyanna view that everything will be rosy. A look at the history of the past 250 years shows plenty of examples where automation has led to widespread distress and immiseration, set against a general trend of increasing living standards. Unemployment has fluctuated, without any obvious trend or apparent correlation with particular technological innovations.

In this context, the past few decades have been among the relatively bad periods, particularly in the leading industrial economy, the US. Wages have stagnated and the ratio of employment to population has fallen, particularly for men, but more recently for women also.

There are lots of things going on here: the breakdown of the Keynesian boom and the rise of financial capitalism being the most obvious at the macro level. But in terms of labour markets, the really striking thing has been the end of the long trend towards reductions in weekly and annual working hours for full-time workers. That’s evident globally, but more easily seen in Australia where standard hours are regulated by the Fair Work Commission and other bodies.

Over the 100 years or so to the early 1980s, Australian workers experienced steady reductions in annual and lifetime hours of work. The standard working week was first capped at 48 hours (an Australian first, celebrated for many years as Eight Hours Day), reduced to 44 hours and then to 40. Paid public holidays became standard in the early 20th century and the number increased over time. Sick leave, long service leave and recreation leave came in. The last significant changes to affect the workforce as a whole were the extension of annual to four weeks in the early 1970s and the reduction of standard working hours to 38 hours in the early 1980s. Since then, with the exception of parental leave paid at the minimum wage, there’s been nothing. On the contrary, overtime, often unpaid, has become the norm. (My impression is that long working hours peaked in the 1990s, and have been scaled back as the labour market has improved, giving workers more bargaining power).

If a resurgence of labour saving technology is to benefit the community as a whole, and not just owners of capital, we need to resume the trend towards taking a large part of the benefits in the form of increased leisure.

I plan to write more about this, and the related ideas of Universal Basic or Guaranteed Minimum Income, in subsequent posts. In the meantime, go and read Tim Dunlop’s book.

  1. Donald Oats
    January 15th, 2017 at 15:36 | #1

    The thing is, with automobiles (autonomous vehicles) it is quite possible to marry goods delivery with this, and to eliminate the human from most of the logistics and supply chain. The real question is how does an economic system built upon capitalism survive this? For the time being, we can shift humans into more cerebral lines of work, but the work pyramid is still present, with autobots (autonomous robots) displacing humans from what was once considered human work.

    How many architects does it take to design an entire city today? Twenty years ago, Forty years ago? Or, twenty years hence, forty years hence? Furthermore, if we know that we want to be able to use autobots to maintain a city’s infrastructure, we surely will design it with that in mind. Pipes and conduits, sewers, etc, with robotic maintenance rather than human work.

    I rather suspect that the economics of it will fail, but not before it has done substantial collateral damage to those who are displaced from employment in the process. No doubt it is possible to construct an economics model that illustrates the interplay of workers’ incomes and the ever-decreasing (relative) volume of human-only work. Interesting and a bit scary too.

    On a different note, could we have a Monday Message this week? I feel in a mind to vent a bit on the topic of public service and social services. It is apposite, for if the above dystopian scenario comes about, how people survive, even thrive, is something that needs far more grand thinking than the current mob’s utter disdain and contempt for anyone down on their luck. I am repeatedly stunned at seeing so many new faces among the people dossing down with nothing to do, nothing to eat, unless someone hands them a fiver; these poor sods have popped up in all our capital cities, and I am willing to bet in much greater numbers than before the LNP first took office. The connection with the swingeing cuts to social support and charity funds, by this mob, is abundantly clear. It has direct and lasting effect upon people, yet the LNP “representatives” have a tin ear when it is pointed out to them. We can find a lazy quarter of a billion for a chaplaincy service in schools though…

  2. GrueBleen
    January 15th, 2017 at 16:04 | #2

    “As I said, the point of capitalism is to destroy jobs, not create them.”

    So says Tim Dunlop (at least twice). Because, says Tim: “Capitalism is driven by profit. Wages are a cost to be controlled in pursuit of that profit. This means that whenever capital can find a way to turn a buck without employing a human, it will take it,…

    Hmm. To me that kinda sounds like the Fallacy of Thrift by a slightly different name: we clever capitalists will destroy all these jobs and then we will sell our products at huge profit to … ? To whom ? Every job that is ‘decreated’ is surely also a paying consumer that is decreated. So to whom exactly will the capitalists sell all their super-profitable products ?

    Will Donald Trump (and the other billionaires) each buy 10,000 automobiles per annum ? If not, then who will buy them ? Maybe the robots will insist on being paid wages and they will buy them ? Come to think of it, when every single one of the greatly over-capacity auto manufacturers is only making self-drive autos, who will buy them ? Especially when nobody has a job that they need to travel to and from on a daily basis.

    Oh, I know: UBI here we come, and at that a large enough UBI to sustain all the world’s capitalist endeavours as very profitable enterprises.

    PS: how long before we have all the world’s planes and ships and trains made by robots ? And flown, sailed and driven by robots with cargoes of goods made and loaded by robots to be delive

  3. GrueBleen
    January 15th, 2017 at 16:05 | #3

    Ooops.

    to be delivered by robot drones to ??

  4. GrueBleen
    January 15th, 2017 at 16:13 | #4

    By the way, as at 2015, IBM still employs nearly 380,000 people worldwide (about 100,000 in the USA). Will Donald make IBM repatriate the other 280,000 jobs ? Or will IBM just replace them by robots (who makes the robots ?).

  5. David Allen
    January 15th, 2017 at 16:59 | #5

    If you visit a railway station in India you will see staff in abundance. Far more than would be “efficient” but, considering the benefits of employment over joblessness, a social good. Contrast this with the recent Underground strikes in London over staff cuts. When efficiency = job losses, it is madness.

  6. rog
    January 15th, 2017 at 17:20 | #6

    As Mandelbrot proved, I t’s impossible to predict the future.

    When automobiles replaced horses in Sydney corn farmers turned to dairy, which was ultimately unprofitable. Small settlements, separated by a days horse ride, died off and people moved to the city for work. Later on the city spread out and absorbed those old “one horses” towns, calling them suburbs.

    River trade dried up when trucks carted produce to markets, those abandoned farmlets are now desirable to city people for recreation.

    But there is an argument that there are now more horses in Australia than pre automobile times.

  7. Brett
    January 15th, 2017 at 17:25 | #7

    Hourly reductions would help, and there’s been a few efforts to try out a 6-hour day instead of the usual 8-hours (the results were that it had good effects, but they didn’t outweigh the costs yet). We could also get reductions by students spending longer periods outside of the labor force, and a higher percentage of the population in retirement as part of aging.

    This is one of those things where it feels weird to suddenly latch on to current trends and say, “hey, this is the real wolf this time!”, especially since productivity is still not great even if automation is changing particular sectors a lot. I’m going to wait and see, and if it does lead to under-employment, then we need to be talking about Job Guarantees, Basic Income, or both (conveniently enough, a Job Guarantee can evolve into a Basic Income over time).

    Using the Rule of 72, that would imply a reduction of 50 per cent over 24 to 36 years.

    That would be so low that the effects of the job loss would be barely noticed. A lot of it would happen in the form of drivers quitting/retiring and not being replaced. If there’s 3 million transportation workers in the US, then the loss of 1.5 million jobs over 24-36 years would be a loss of about 5208 workers a month. It’d be lost in the noise, like the lost of milk man/ice man/miscellaneous office staff unemployment.

  8. Smith
    January 15th, 2017 at 17:30 | #8

    @David Allen

    I take it you’d like to see a return to driver-operated lifts, rather than the kind the we have, where passengers push the buttons.

    On whether technology will destroy the total number of jobs (as opposed to particular ones), colour me sceptical, but we’ve heard all this before. Entire occupations have disappeared yet we’ve managed to think of new things for people to get paid to do, and on the whole we’ve gotten richer in the process. (Yes, not everyone has, and it has come at environmental cost, a big caveat.)

    Whether we end up working a lot less, again, this been predicted before, most famously by Keynes but not just him. Richard Nixon in the mid 1950s gave a famous (at the time) speech where he said by 1990 everyone would be working four hours a day, three days, six months a year. It didn’t work out that way because it as it happens humans want to use their productivity to earn income and buy stuff rather than commune with nature (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Plus of course there is the dignity and self-actualisation that comes with working, that you don’t get in leisure time, even if you’ve got plenty of money and don’t need to work.

  9. Ken_L
    January 15th, 2017 at 18:11 | #9

    I’m too lazy to look it up, but I was under the impression increased ‘leisure’, or at least non-working time, has continued to increase because of later entry to the workforce, earlier retirement, and increased incidence of part-time/casual work/self-employed contracting. I know the extent to which the last reflects workers’ preferences is a matter of robust argument, but surely at least some of it reflects considered worker choice. Mine did, anyway, so there’s at least one. We can expect these trends to continue.

    Another development is the re-emergence of small-scale, labor-intensive craft manufacturing and agriculture. For example industrial production of cabbages has cost lots of jobs, but increasing affluence has underpinned an increasing number of inefficient operators growing small batches of everything from kale to ‘microgreens’ (i.e. vegetables harvested long before they are mature).

    There’s a natural inclination to think “Yeah but surely the creation of new industries and jobs can’t keep happening forever”. Yet as I think John is hinting, history suggests it can.

  10. Ken_L
    January 15th, 2017 at 18:19 | #10

    The other point I wanted to make is that progressives have been absolutely terrible at taking credit for the positive effects of technological change and the extent to which union and social democrat movements have used it to improve people lives. To read American online conversations, you’d think labour’s dream is to have millions of workers back slaving in the coal mines, being bored rigid on the assembly lines or risking their lives and health in a steelworks.

    Getting rid of these jobs has been TERRIFIC for Australians’ quality of life. We should be celebrating it instead of pretending life was so much better when kids could leave school at 15 to start a lifetime screwing lids onto washing machines at the Electrolux factory.

  11. Smith
    January 15th, 2017 at 18:47 | #11

    @Ken_L

    Some progressives have a very romantic view of work that occurs in factories. This might be because unions who represent factory workers tend to be militant, so a factory is the embodiment of the class struggle, writ small.

  12. Jordan from Croatia
    January 15th, 2017 at 23:49 | #12

    The reduction of working hours would have continued if it wasn’t for change in share of profits that management class took for themselves.
    It was a political desicision that allowed for management class taking productivity increase for themselves. reducing the marginal tax rate is just one of the political decisions that was crucial in reducing workers share of profits/ income of a firm.

    All of the issues raised:
    ‘the breakdown of the Keynesian boom and the rise of financial capitalism’
    ‘the end of the long trend towards reductions in weekly and annual working hours for full-time workers’
    are connected and decided political
    The trend is changed only politicaly just as it was reversed by political desicions. It is done by all “free market” phylosophy used as an excuse to change institutional settings in the system.
    There is no market forces that will lead toward increased leisure. All of it has been political decisions. Enforcing or not labor rules on lenght of workweek is just an example of political decisions.

    Where is the future of the employment in next 50 years? Entertainment
    Yes, entertainment requiers human input and robots won’t replace it that easilly.
    Such developement will have to be helped by government support, most efficient is by using Job Guranatee programs.
    Since there is a growth in separation between people and human socializing is growing less prevelent with advancing technology and competition mentality, there will be a lot of employment need in paid socializing. This can only be reached by government input, which is a political desicion.

  13. January 16th, 2017 at 00:21 | #13

    @Jordan from Croatia

    Yes, more and more employment is entertainment. I go to coffee shops, and am served by pretty, happy young men and women. The smile and joke with me, and really, that is what I’m paying for. At the supermarket, there are pretty young girls on the checkout. Markedly different to the people working in the deli section and stacking the shelves. There is no doubt I’m paying for their attention. Makes it sound almost like prostitution. Sigh.

  14. Blissex
    January 16th, 2017 at 03:37 | #14

    «The fact that, nearly 15 years after it became a major phenomenon, online shopping has not prevented growth in retail employment»

    And why should it? Online shopping is not new and not labour saving, it is mostly based on avoiding rent for shop space.

    Online shopping is just catalogue shopping, where mail-ordering or ordering by phone have been replaced by web-ordering. Perhaps there has been a small reduction in employment in that the catalogue no longer needs to be printed, and the order-taking no longer needs a call-centre, but that’s rather a secondary effect.

    The main reason why online shopping has become big is that Amazon have decided to be a public charity and do catalogue retailing for no profit. Very generous of them. 🙂

    A secondary reason is that the availability of a large number of very cheap unskilled immigrants has made the labor cost of warehouse workers and delivery drivers lower, improving the economics of any catalogue retailer. But the main advantage of catalogue retail is still in not paying rent for shop space.

  15. Jim Rose
    January 16th, 2017 at 05:46 | #15

    I wrote an op-ed a few months ago in the National business Review observing that we have this moral panic about how there is going to be an end of growth, a great stagnation, but the robots are also going to take our jobs.

  16. Ikonoclast
    January 16th, 2017 at 07:22 | #16

    “If a resurgence of labour saving technology is to benefit the community as a whole, and not just owners of capital, we need to resume the trend towards taking a large part of the benefits in the form of increased leisure.” – J.Q.

    I think a few logical and political steps have been jumped over here. Let’s frame it as it ought to be framed.

    If the system – the entire system not just the labour saving technology aspect – is to benefit the community as a whole and not just owners of capital then a reallocation of the ownership of capital must take place.

    After all, the unemployed and homeless right now are taking a large part of the “benefits” in the form of increased “leisure” (hopeless idleness).

    With no complete political program to address the fundamental problem of the system (unequal and increasing unequal ownership of capital), no fundamental solution will be forthcoming.

    If Return on capital is greater than economic Growth then Inequality increases. – Piketty. Given that a combination of neoliberal ideology, depressed wages, a capital over-accumulation crisis and environmental crises compounding as limits-to-growth are holding growth back, then Piketty’s equation in conditional logic form takes on new force. A new explosion in economic growth (like the one after WW2) seems unlikely to occur. This leaves the system in fundamental and very likely final crisis.

  17. Jim Birch
    January 16th, 2017 at 15:44 | #17

    @Ikonoclast
    I should be quite possible to tax robots, or profits, without having the the dismantling of the capitalist state as a precondition. And if you proceed on that basis you are unlikely to do anything useful at all.

    The question of how to handle robots replacing workers would presumably be an issue in other types of political systems, not that there are many left. I guess it would eventually come up in North Korea if we wait long enough. There is just more impetus to replace workers in high cost locations.

    Replacing workers with robots is economically similar to replacing workers with foreign workers in many ways. People want the benefits but the costs are applied unevenly. Some people cop it in the neck. Maybe we will have a Make America Unrobotic Again president one day.

  18. John Quiggin
    January 16th, 2017 at 16:01 | #18

    @Blissex

    From the consumer side, online is hugely more efficient than mail-order and substantially more efficient than phone order. In our household, I’d say it accounts for well over 50 per cent of our retail expenditure, including most groceries and nearly all clothing

    But clearly, we’re in the minority (or perhaps on the bleeding edge). Online share of retail is only 6.8 per cent.

    http://www.powerretail.com.au/news/online-sales-pass-20-billion/

  19. Ikonoclast
    January 16th, 2017 at 16:50 | #19

    @Jim Birch

    1. Capitalist Profits – > Taxes – > Welfare – > Spending – > Capitalist Profits.

    Yes, it is a circuit but is it the most efficient circuit possible?

    There are also the circuits;

    2. Capitalist Gross Income – > Wages – > Spending – > Capitalist Profits; and

    3. Capitalist Gross Income – > Capital Spending – > Capitalist Profits; and

    4. Capitalist Profits – > Capitalist Consumption Spending – > Capitalist Profits.

    There are probably a few more wrinkles. These are really circuits not straight beginning-end processes as I have written them here.

    With Circuit 1., which is just churn without productive effects (except that poor people have a large marginal propensity to consume), it would be possible to reduce it, though not eliminate it by ensuring full employment, better basic wages – increasing the wage share of workers – and moving some (not necessarily all) ownership from large capitalists to workers in worker owned and managed enterprises.

    All family businesses, where familial adults own the business and share income from the business, are in fact worker cooperatives. When the right-wing laud family business and small business they are often in fact lauding worker owned cooperatives. They are proven to work. This segment of our economy (along with some others) is already socialist. We just need to extend (re-extend) the socialism back up to big businesses, natural monoplies etc.

  20. Blissex
    January 16th, 2017 at 20:54 | #20

    «From the consumer side, online is hugely more efficient than mail-order and substantially more efficient than phone order.»

    Well, not so clear to me here, and I used a lot of mail-order and phone order before online shopping. Online shopping can be more efficient than going-to-the-shops shopping for certain classes of consumers, but that’s because it is a form of catalogue shopping.

    What may be somewhat more efficient is looking up and comparing products online, that is making product research thanks to online information, but that’s quite different from online shopping as such; and most people don’t do much product research, they just order the usual.

    I’ll give a specific example: I am a bit of a gadgets guy (boys and toys…), and before the web I used to do research on gadget magazines and asking other guys, and then mail order or phone order the gadgets from catalogue gadget shops. I now research from blogs and online forums, and I order from web gadget shops, which are *the same* companies as the mail/hone order catalogue gadget shops I used before the web. They just replaced the printed catalogue with an online one and the printed order form with an online order form. The only notable change has been that Amazon is now competing with the the same companies that I used before the web, offering essentially the same service at the same prices, so nearly all of them have survived. Many physical bookshops instead did not survive because Amazon outcompeted them; but that happened only because Amazon significantly discounted books, especially popular books, as loss-leaders.

    So my impression is that online ordering has replaced mail or phone ordering and is not significantly more efficient even for consumers, it is just a bit more convenient as we spend so much time on the computers anyhow.

    Ah, as another example I now do most of my grocery shopping “online”. That is often slow and inefficient for me, as the web site is slower than browsing shelves at a glance, but I do that because it comes with home delivery in the evenings, which saves me travel time and opportunity time; but home delivery is an ancient practice, which temporarily went out of fashion when many people got cars and went to suburban supermarkets to do home-delivery to themselves. But whether home delivery is done by the shop’s “boy” with a tricycle or by the shopper themselves with a car in the aggregate does not change much, it just shifts the cost around, a bit like self-checkout at supermarkets. In online shopping in effect the big difference is that order taking is just shifted from a clerk at the shop to the shopper themselves, a bit indeed like self-checkout at supermarkets.

    Where computer technology has improved efficiency is at then industrial level, in wholesale, in logistics, rather than in retail, whichever form retail takes.

    My usual refrain is that the really big *cost* savings always come from using cheaper energy, by replacing muscle power based on farmed food with engine power based on mined fuel, as the latter is so much cheaper and has higher energy density. Mere organizational changes, even “division of labour” give much smaller benefits, and simple shifts in who does what are even less important.

  21. January 16th, 2017 at 23:55 | #21

    Tim has a knack for picking emergent topic and a way of getting rave reviews

    It is probably to late to slow the train behind artificial intelligence and robots so we and the next generations will live in interesting times where the gap between those who own robots and who do not will go wider and wider … Outsourcing parliamentary democracy to AI might be cheaper as I doubt that robots would be fond of the travels to Gold Coast or Broome etc …

    Last month, it was reported that Foxconn plans to replace almost every human worker in some of its manufacturing plants with a robot. Perhaps more worrying for office workers was the news that a Japanese insurance firm wassacking over 30 staff because artificial intelligence could calculate payouts just as well as humans. No wonder that two-thirds of Americans believe that robots will soon take on the majority of work currently performed by people.
    But according to a study on automation, employment, and productivity published by McKinsey Global Institute, the research division of the consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, the pace of automation’s impact on the labor force may be a little less fierce than expected. And, it reckons, the economy has more to gain by humans working alongside robots for the foreseeable future.

    https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603370/robots-will-devour-jobs-more-slowly-than-you-think/
    Robots will devour jobs more slowly than you think

    In his final Twitter post as President Obama’s deputy Chief Technology Officer, Ed Felten dryly notes one of his accomplishments: “Robot apocalypses: 0.”
    Robots and automation have received lots of attention over the past year, with much of the interest ranging from alarmist to curious. Elon Musk has said that robots will take your job. The Economist detailed the long history of human anxiety over automation-induced job loss.  And, at the recently concluded 50thannual Consumer Electronics Show, companies rolled out robots to monitor your child and brew your coffee and tea. Robots are everywhere, except, as it turns out, in the data.
    ( http://www.forbes.com/sites/washingtonbytes/2017/01/11/we-wont-even-know-if-a-robot-takes-your-job/#5fa708d14480
    We wont even know if a robot takes your job )

    PS: Where does the word robot come – from truth is stranger than fiction
    http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/05/where-does-the-word-robot-come-from/

  22. January 17th, 2017 at 00:00 | #22
  23. Simon Fowler
    January 17th, 2017 at 20:09 | #24

    A little late to the party, but I have some comments to make about the dangers of job loss due to automation.

    Most of the automation and artificial intelligence systems that are posed as threats to jobs are far less of a threat in reality than in the fantasy of people who don’t know what’s involved with actually automating work. I automate parts of my job all the time – in fact, if I didn’t I’d be irresponsible, incompetent, and probably /out/ of a job. What I’ve learned over the years of doing this (approaching 20 now) is that successful automation is always about replacing work that a human really /shouldn’t/ be doing.

    Current automation tools are extremely limited in their flexibility. It’s simply not possible to automate the work of someone like a hospice worker, or a cleaner, or much of the retail sales force, because those jobs demand enormous flexibility and (dare I say it) creativity. You can successfully automate /aspects/ of those jobs, but choosing when to apply those automated systems is beyond any current automation mechanisms, particularly in a context where providing good customer service (i.e. keeping the customer happy and spending money) is critical. Although it may be hard to recognise it as such, the judgement and interpersonal skills required to do that well are extremely valuable, powerful and surprisingly rare, and the task of developing an automated system to replicate them would be a truly /massive/ undertaking, and one that would be so dependant on the total state of the system that it would be very hard to generalise. Trying to apply a solution developed for one store to the store next door would probably be a total failure, making the whole effort essentially a complete waste of time. You’d spend far more on the engineers and their work developing such a system than it’d save you, compared to simply hiring reasonably good sales people.

    What current automation /is/ good at doing is replacing the bits of a job that /aren’t/ necessarily a good match for humans. Robots in manufacturing are a perfect example: humans on an old-style assembly line had a horrible, demeaning and soul-crushing job, essentially being expected to act as if they were robots. This is a /good/ job to lose to a robot, even if it might be hard to accept when that means ending up unemployed. Other cases of automation replacing parts of a job include the move to digital document management, computerised inventory management, largely automated payroll systems, paywave payments, electronic medicare refunds, and many more – these are all things that can be automated fairly easily, and which mostly involve manual implementation of a simple, repetitive and mostly meaningless process.

    The more sophisticated AI-driven automation (autonomous cars being the most current example) is also mostly moving humans away from tasks that they’re not well suited for. Autonomous vehicles are /hard/ because of the scale and complexity of our transport systems, but humans are extremely ill-suited to the task we set ourselves when driving a car – we’re inattentive, we make bad judgements about risks and rewards all the time, we have horribly slow reaction times, and when we’re forced to make split-second decisions we act on instincts that were mostly formed on the savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago. I suspect that in many situations Tesla’s autopilot is /already/ vastly safer than a human driver, and that range of situations is increasing quickly. Soon the only thing the driver will be better at than the car will be the most important question: where to go. That’s something people are good at, and freeing them from needing to be able to act like a self-driving car will make many, many people far happier and safer.

    Other areas where AI is encroaching on people’s jobs include medical diagnostic systems, and legal support systems. In both cases those systems are encroaching on something we’re encouraged to think of as a deeply human trait: making connections and deducing relationships. The thing is, that isn’t really as “human” a trait as we like to believe – hell, it’s something that we can demonstrate happening in pretty much all the animals that we look for it in. What we /don’t/ see anywhere else in the universe (so far) is the self-conscious awareness that allows humans to, in essence, decide /why/ we want to do something, and to understand why /other people/ want to do things. A medical diagnostic computer system might be able to diagnose a patient’s illness faster and with fewer errors than a human doctor, but passing few of those patients would prefer to discuss the implications of that diagnosis with the computer. A diagnostic system will never replace a human doctor, it will simply act as an aid to better treating the patients, just as we replaced exploratory surgery with MRIs, sulphanomides with antibiotics, or any of the other changes that have taken place previously in medicine. Likewise with any other expert systems that might seem to threaten the jobs of highly skilled knowledge workers – if an expert system /can/ take away your job, your job isn’t as highly skilled and as demanding (or as deserving) of your humanity than you thought it was.

    At the end of all this work on automation and artificial intelligence, though, there will probably be a time when we /do/ manage to create an artificial intelligence that /can/ take those jobs away from us, because it will be one that is actually /equal/ to us: a true intelligence that just happens to be one created by us rather than by natural evolution. But what do you think we’ll do once we recognise that we’ve done that? Enslave that intelligence to replace all those jobs that it /can/ do, simply because it’s /possible/? Or do you think we’ll apply what we’ve learned at great pains over the last three hundred years since the beginning of the Enlightenment: that certain rights are inalienable, that those rights devolve to anyone we can recognise as a /person/, and that what we recognise as a person shouldn’t be tied to what they look like, how they talk or think, what they believe, how they choose to live their lives, or how well or ill they fit into any individual’s conception of “humanity”.

    The endgame for all this technological advancement won’t be the replacement of humans, it’ll be the enlargement of them. And I for one believe that will be to /all/ our benefits.

    This is all very airy-fairy and far from the relatively grounded original post, but this is all part of the broader discussion of our relationship with work, with other people, and with society. We really need to move away from valuing work because of its money-spinning abilities or it’s busyness or even its efficiency – we need to value work because of its contribution to society, because of its contribution to our own personal growth and happiness, and because of its fundamental /humanity/. That should be at the core of all our discussions about work, and I think it’s worth writing a long and rather tangential post in order to raise this issue.

  24. Shirley0401
    January 18th, 2017 at 06:04 | #25

    I look forward to reading more on this topic — I still point people towards JQ’s article in Aeon from a few years back about Keynes and the 15-hour week.

    Re: @Ken_L

    “Getting rid of these jobs has been TERRIFIC for Australians’ quality of life. We should be celebrating it instead of pretending life was so much better when kids could leave school at 15 to start a lifetime screwing lids onto washing machines at the Electrolux factory.”

    I agree 100% and think a major failure of the left is its failure to reclaim the mantle as the party of the vast majority of actually living breathing human beings. We’ve co-signed this sick assumption that people exist primarily to earn wages so they can spend the wages and keep the economy humming. It’s reflected in the language we use, where mainstream radio hosts use the term “consumers” interchangeably with “people.”

    FWIW, Andy Stern’s book was pretty good at getting to some of these points in a very user-friendly way. I imagine JQ is familiar with it, but others posting here might be interested in it, as well.

  25. John Quiggin
    January 18th, 2017 at 09:36 | #26

    “but home delivery is an ancient practice, which temporarily went out of fashion when many people got cars and went to suburban supermarkets to do home-delivery to themselves.”

    Or, to put the same point differently, most people (including you and me) preferred supermarket shopping to phone order and home delivery, but many (again including you and me) prefer online order and home delivery to supermarket shopping. Apply transitivity

  26. January 18th, 2017 at 18:19 | #27

    … And in DAVO manifestos we trust

    According to Business Inside Insider, Most of the world’s largest companies promise to retrain staff even if robots replace jobs …
    http://www.businessinsider.com/davos-2017-infosys-report-on-automation-robots-jobs-skills-2017-1

  27. January 18th, 2017 at 18:22 | #28

    As they say, recession is when our neighbour’s job is being replaced. Depresion definition applies when our jobs go …

  28. January 18th, 2017 at 18:31 | #29

    I just scanned the Business Insider and it also includes a last topic of this post
    “This MIT website makes you decide who a self-driving car should kill in an accident” so it takes me back to Karel Čapek’s novel…
    http://www.businessinsider.com.au/mit-research-crowdsource-self-driving-cars-2017-1

  29. boconnor
    January 18th, 2017 at 19:02 | #30

    @Simon Fowler

    Excellent post. Very good and pursuasive points.

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