Don’t Fear the Robots—or Not!

We have been running numerous articles about how automation and artificial intelligence will gradually—or not so gradually—put us out of work. Now along comes an article by a professor at Stanford that attempts to console us for the loss of those jobs by promising the creation of many more jobs, but as what exactly? As servants to the rich—thanks a lot! Isn’t this rather rubbing our noses in our inequality?

By JERRY KAPLAN, July 22, 2017 for The Wall Street Journal

 The field of artificial intelligence is now more than a half-century old, and today we are seeing one of its periodic hype cycles, with commentators fretting that the next generation of robots will bring massive unemployment.

Such studies naturally raise concerns that we may be on the brink of an unprecedented employment crisis. But robots aren’t mechanical people. They are a new wave of automation, and like previous waves, they reduce the need for human labor. In doing so, they make the remaining workers more productive and their companies more profitable. These profits then find their way into the pockets of employees, stockholders and consumers (through lower prices).

This newfound wealth, in turn, increases demand for products and services, compensating for lost jobs by employing even more people. In a recent paper prepared for a European Central Bank conference, the economists David Autor of MIT and Anna Salomons of Utrecht  . . . concluded that “country-level employment generally grows as aggregate productivity rises.”

Employees worked alongside robotic arms at a Mercedes-Benz factory in Bremen, Germany, Jan. 24. PHOTO: KRISZTIAN BOCSI/BLOOMBERG NEWS

The historical record provides strong support for this view. After all, despite centuries of progress in automation and recurrent warnings of a jobless future, total employment has continued to increase relentlessly, even with bumps along the way.

More remarkable is the fact that today’s most dire projections of jobs lost to automation fall short of historical norms. A recent analysis by Robert Atkinson and John Wu of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation quantified the rate of job destruction (and creation) in each decade since 1850, based on census data. They found that an incredible 57% of the jobs that workers did in 1960 no longer exist today (adjusted for the size of the workforce).  [But isn’t this the point—just what landed us where we are today without enough jobs to go around?]

Workers suffering some of the largest losses included office clerks, secretaries and telephone operators. They found similar levels of displacement in the decades after the introduction of railroads and the automobile. Who is old enough to remember bowling alley pin-setters? Elevator operators? Gas jockeys? When was the last time you heard a manager say, “Take a memo”?

In the face of such evidence, why do so many experts and futurists continue to warn of an impending crisis? The crux of their argument is that the coming wave of artificially intelligent computers and robots can do virtually any job that a human can do, so everyone’s job is on the chopping block. As the logic goes, if artificial intelligence is getting so smart that it can recognize cats, drive cars, beat world-champion Go players, identify cancerous lesions and translate from one language to another, won’t it soon be capable of doing just about anything a person can?

Not by a long shot. What all of these tasks have in common is that they involve finding subtle patterns in very large collections of data, a process that goes by the name of machine learning. The kinds of data vary, of course. It might be pixels in cat photos, bytes streaming from a dashboard camera, millions of computer-generated games of Go, digital X-rays or volumes of human-translated documents.

But it is misleading to characterize all of this as some extraordinary leap toward duplicating human intelligence. . . . These programs present no more of a threat to human primacy than did automatic looms, phonographs and calculators, all of which were greeted with astonishment and trepidation by the workers they replaced when first introduced.

And robots may not be welcome in the growth occupations of the future. As we become wealthier, consumers are likely to allocate an increasing share of their income to premium services. This is precisely the segment of the economy where personal care, face-to-face interaction and demonstrations of skill are critical to the value delivered.

Luxury hotels are not prized because they are more efficient but because their staff is more attentive. People pay more to watch a barista brew their latte than for a comparable product from a vending machine, and I somehow doubt that our grandchildren will want to tell their troubles to a robotic bartender or prefer to stick their hands in a manicure machine. In the future, the masses may make do with simple-minded domestic robots while the upper crust hires ever more butlers and maids. . . .   [Great, Dr. Kaplan! Now, does being a butler require a college degree?]

This trend may begin to play out in our own lifetimes. Many consumers are likely to conclude in the next decade or so that they no longer need to have a car of their own. What’s called “transportation as a service” (autonomous taxis, on-demand vehicles and ride sharing) will save the typical American family more than $5,000 a year, according to think tank RethinkX.

What will we do with that extra money? Spend it, of course—on vacations, clothes, restaurant dinners, concert tickets, spa days and more. That means increased demand for flight attendants, hospitality workers, tour guides, bartenders, dog walkers, tailors, chefs, ushers, yoga instructors and masseuses, even as artificial intelligence reduces the need for drivers, warehouse workers and factory operators.

The irony of the coming wave of artificial intelligence is that it may herald a golden age of personal service. If history is a guide, this remarkable technology won’t spell the end of work as we know it. Instead, artificial intelligence will change the way that we live and work, improving our standard of living while shuffling jobs from one category to another in the familiar capitalist cycle of creation and destruction.

—Dr. Kaplan is an adjunct professor at Stanford University, where he teaches about artificial intelligence. His latest book is “Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press).




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