The silver lining of a world run amuck by machines

The widening gap between technology investment and job growth means bright prospects for robots and computers. But where does that leave humans? On the fringes, say experts.

Everyday, we learn about new uses for computers and machines that replace or augment humans. Google has developed cars that drive themselves, algorithms can write news stories from data, and in Japan factories run "lights out" for weeks at a time with little or no human presence.

Historically, technology revolutions spawn waves of creative destruction that produce new kinds of jobs. For instance, the industrial revolution put artisans out of work but employed legions of unskilled laborers.

Today, there is a widening gap between technology investment and job growth. The national unemployment rate is at its highest point since the early 80's and out-of-work protestors are taking to the streets.

A new book, "Race Against the Machine" from MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argues that jobs lost since the Great Recession haven’t returned partly because companies have invested more heavily in automated technology, rather than hiring (outsourcing is another cause). The authors spell out the consequences in an article published in The Atlantic:

The threat of technological unemployment is real. To understand this threat, we'll define three overlapping sets of winners and losers that technical change creates: (1) high-skilled vs. low-skilled workers, (2) superstars vs. everyone else, and (3) capital vs. labor. Each set has well-documented facts and compelling links to digital technology. What's more, these sets are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the winners in one set are more likely to be winners in the other two sets as well, which concentrates the consequences.

The white-collar worker is not immune. In the coming decades, advanced pattern recognition software and AI-driven systems will replace much of what knowledge workers do today, including those in the retail, legal and information technology industries (See Larry Dignan's recent post).

The trend has led experts like Douglas Rushkoff to question if jobs are obsolete and if society should continue to organize itself around employment.

Others, however, view this labor revolution with optimism, claiming that we have a place alongside machines. It is making us confront the fundamental question of what humans are good at and potentially expose a greater meaning to life.

Marina Gorbis, executive director at Institute for the Future, an independent nonprofit research group, points out that machines don’t just replace what we do, they change the nature of what we do by extending our capabilities and setting new expectations for what’s possible. She writes:

Over the next decade, while machines will replace humans in some tasks, they’ll also amplify us, enabling us to do things we never dreamed of doing before. We’ll enter into a new kind of partnership with these machines—one that will shine light on the unique comparative advantages of humans: thinking, creativity, spontaneity, adaptability, and improvisation.

The World Future Society argues that industries that undergo technological transformation don't disappear, but the number of jobs they support sure do. For instance, agribusiness employed half the population in the early 1900’s but now provides just 3% of all jobs.

David Autor, an economist at MIT, says that the transition towards a post-industrial economy will see a clustering of job opportunities at opposite ends of the skills spectrum where machines have yet to foray.

On one end of the spectrum are low-paying service-oriented jobs that require personal interaction and the manipulation of machinery in unpredictable environments, such as cooking food in a busy kitchen, or taking care of pre-schoolers.

At the other end are jobs that require creativity, ambiguity, and high levels of personal training and judgment. These include jobs that require both physical and advanced mental capabilities (e.g., nurses and plumbers) and creative acts like composing very good songs, writing great novels, or generating good ideas for new businesses.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 65% of today's grade school kids will end up at a job that hasn't been invented yet. It may behoove educators, academic institutions, and policy makers to prepare them for tomorrow's challenges by harnessing the power of computing, collective intelligence and human ingenuity.

"The activities that make us human -– thinking, dreaming, learning, communicating, and feeling, are the skills that are the most difficult to program. In a contest of “man vs. machine”, people will continue to shine and outperform in these areas for years to come," says the World Future Society.

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