Expect another bout of panic driven neo-Physiocracy as more people read this Economist article on the inroads that machines are making in the job market:
The evidence is irrefutable that computerised automation, networks and artificial intelligence (AI)—including machine-learning, language-translation, and speech- and pattern-recognition software—are beginning to render many jobs simply obsolete.
This is unlike the job destruction and creation that has taken place continuously since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as machines gradually replaced the muscle-power of human labourers and horses. Today, automation is having an impact not just on routine work, but on cognitive and even creative tasks as well. A tipping point seems to have been reached, at which AI-based automation threatens to supplant the brain-power of large swathes of middle-income employees…
Put bluntly, few new white-collar jobs, as people know them, are going to be created to replace those now being lost—despite the hopes many place in technology, innovation and better education…
There are several examples of how this is already happening:
Radiologists, who can earn over $300,000 a year in America, after 13 years of college education and internship, are among the first to feel the heat. It is not just that the task of scanning tumour slides and X-ray pictures is being outsourced to Indian laboratories, where the job is done for a tenth of the cost. The real threat is that the latest automated pattern-recognition software can do much of the work for less than a hundredth of it.
Lawyers are in a similar boat now that smart algorithms can search case law, evaluate the issues at hand and summarise the results. Machines have already shown they can perform legal discovery for a fraction of the cost of human professionals—and do so with far greater thoroughness than lawyers and paralegals usually manage.
While I have a healthy respect for the power of technology to revolutionize industries, guilds and ultimately whole societies, I do not think the robots are going to do to us what the mammals did to the dinosaurs. The oncoming waves are going to challenge many of us to adjust, but the net effect on the human race is a plus. We are going to be spending less and less time on the dull and frequently dangerous jobs that are required to produce the goods and services that we need to sustain our existence, and will spend more and more time as creators and cultivators of meaning and beauty. (Also of shows like “American Idol,” but nothing is perfect.)
There are a lot of people who can’t believe this is true. They are the modern day heirs of the Physiocrats, an 18th century French economic school that believed only farmers produced anything of value. Cities and everyone in them were parasites living of the surplus extracted from the sturdy sons of toil.
More recently we’ve seen a neo-Physiocrat revival as people worry about that outsourcing and automation would destroy manufacturing jobs. How, these people ask, can anybody in America make a living when all the “real” work is being done by machines or by the Chinese? “Don’t tell us,” the neo-Physiocrats say, “about service jobs. We can’t all make a living giving each other French and ballet lessons. Somebody has to make something real or we will all go to the poorhouse.”
The first Physiocrats got it wrong about the farms. Today less than six percent of the population works the land in advanced countries, and both we urbanites and the farmers are living much better than in 1785. The neo-Physiocrats are equally wrong about manufacturing and about the other activities that robots can do.
What Physiocrats paleo neo both miss is that while the basic work needs to be done (the crops need to be planted and harvested, the stuff needs to come out of the factories), human society becomes richer and not poorer when fewer and fewer people have to spend devote those lives to those jobs. Yes, a lot of scut jobs (and some white collar ones as well) are going to disappear, but ultimately people will figure out new ways to create value that will make them good livings.
We can’t all make a living planning each others’ weddings, neo-Physiocrats cry, but in fact we can — if the food and the other things we need are plentiful and cheap. Value is what people will will pay for, and that can be ballet lessons and items for e-gaming; as more and more of the routine business of life isn’t needed, people will have more free time and be willing to pay people who can help them fill it with meaning, excitement, satisfaction and fun.
The transition from an old economic order to a new one is always wrenching — especially if you are the equivalent of a highly skilled spinner who has just been replaced by a mechanical loom. And the shift isn’t just stressful for individuals; whole cities, regions and countries must undergo painful change.
But we can’t lose the big picture. As Karl Marx put it in another context, progress is about humanity’s transition from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. The less we have to work to produce the necessities of life, the more we can work to make life richer for ourselves and those around us.
Where the new waves of change pose the greatest challenge is at the level of policy: caught up in the blue social model and committed to large institutions that don’t make a lot of sense anymore, our society is not doing enough to retool itself to take advantage of the new opportunities while dealing as humanely as possible with the problems we face. Neo-Physiocrat nostalgia for a dead world makes things worse, not better; we need the vision to imagine a new world, and the courage to build it.