Monday, June 15, 2015

Life In the Robotic Economy: Two Views and One Conclusion

Worries about machines or robots taking the place of humans go back at least as far as 1932, when Jean Harlow famously mentioned it in the film Dinner at Eight, from which the clip was taken.  While the post-World-War II boom ended the Great Depression and allayed such concerns for a while, they have returned recently with a vengeance.

When a guy with dreadlocks who plays obscure Egyptian musical instruments writes a book warning of a future economic disaster as technological unemployment spreads, you can be excused for thinking he's just one voice in the wilderness.  But when a clean-cut British high-tech entrepreneur comes along saying close to the same thing, maybe you'd better listen.  What are both of these gentlemen talking about?  Both of them are worried that as computer and network technology improves, not just many but most jobs in advanced economies will be done better, cheaper, and faster by machines.  And then what will all the displaced workers do?

The clean-cut Brit is Martin Ford, who founded a Silicon Valley software firm and wrote Rise of the Robots:  Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.  While I haven't read the book, in a recent interview published in the San Jose Mercury-News Ford echoes the concern posed in his book's title.  He foresees a bleak future not only for semi-manual laborers such as truck drivers, but for many white-collar workers such as radiologists, journalists, and even lawyers.  The problem is a two-edged sword.  Not only will lots of people be unable to get good-paying jobs, but the supply side will suffer as well.  If nobody can earn any money, it's going to be hard for the smart non-robotic elite who own all the means of producing goods and services, to sell those goods and services.  Already, Ford says, high-volume goods firms such as Wal-Mart are having trouble selling all their stuff, because their customers are having trouble earning enough money to buy it.

The dreadlocked musician is Jaron Lanier, who I mentioned briefly in this space a few weeks ago.  He wrote the book Who Owns the Future? in which he makes essentially the same point.  Suppose virtually all the service jobs end up being performed by networked robots that are owned and operated by only a few big privileged companies, which is typically the way this kind of thing ends up.  Then, Lanier says, "When only certain privileged players can own capital, while everyone else can only buy services, the market will eventually consume itself and evolve into a nonmarket."  What will the vast unemployed majority buy those services with?  Credit cards? 

Lanier and Ford have moderately different answers to the problem, though neither one thinks solving it will be simple, easy, or fast. 

Ford advocates a guaranteed income, citing for support no less an authority than the economist Friedrich Hayek, who is usually viewed as favoring a conservative free-market approach.  While it is true that Hayek accepted the notion of a guaranteed minimum income, it's unlikely that he envisioned an economy in which a few super-rich people and firms would provide nearly all goods and services, and the rest of us poor slobs would take our government checks and go buy whatever the super-rich people wanted to sell to us.  Instead, Hayek viewed a minimum income as a small-scale safety net intended for the few who either could not work by reason of disability or were temporarily thrown out of work, not as a way of running the whole show.

Lanier's solution is more complicated.  He thinks that we should transition to an economy in which average people are paid for their teeny incremental contributions to giant databases.  If, say, you write a review of a book that you bought on Amazon, you ought to get paid, not only for writing the review, but every time somebody reads it online, or copies it and uses it for something else, for a good long while.  His ruling principle would be that anything useful or valuable that anyone does online should have that person's name attached to it.  And nobody should be able to use it for any purpose without paying something to the person who originated it. 

No crystal ball is perfect, and so just because two different high-tech gurus foresee the same looming problem doesn't mean it's as inevitable as death and taxes.  In my own mostly white-collar profession of engineering, I have seen something like what Lanier and Ford are talking about take place over the years.  When I started out in this business in the 1980s, the typical electrical engineer spent most of his (yes, his, rarely her) time with his fingers in circuit boards or with a soldering iron in his hand, building and testing prototype circuits.  It was both a craft and an intellectual activity, but craftsmanship was a good part of it.  Contrast that with a fairly typical senior design project I'm helping to oversee this year.  The students took some raw signal data from the sponsoring company, are developing some software using advanced commercial software tools to process it, and will finish with a presentation of their software package to the sponsor. 

It's all typing on a computer, as so much of engineering has become.  And while the human brain is still involved in the process, it's moving toward a situation where all it will take is one person (probably in sales) looking up the solution to a customer's problem on a proprietary database, tweaking a few options, and selling it.  All the engineering either has been done already, or is being done by software operating on more software.  Yes, somewhere somebody has to write the software, but as software engineering gets more efficient and people quit reinventing the wheel all the time and swap known algorithms around, you need fewer and fewer people to get the same job done.

Will it all end up like Ford fears, 99% of us sitting around on the dole playing computer games all day in our subsidized housing, while the 1% live their fabled lives in Aruba or Cote d'Azur?  Or like Lanier prefers, where the middle class resurges with value in the form of money coming back to them as they create value in the form of data, data that is currently being sucked into the Googles and Facebooks with nothing spendable being given in return?  Or like something else that neither Ford nor Lanier foresees, except in patches?

My money is on the third option.  It won't necessarily be better than the other two.  But I think these two gentlemen are on to something that technologists and everyone else ought to be aware of.  Whether we can do something about the problem before it gets much worse is another question entirely.  And if Jean Harlow were here today, she might have to deal with a virtual-reality replacement for her—unless she had a good robotic lawyer.

Sources:  The interview with Martin Ford by Matt O'Brien was published in the online version of the San Jose (California) Mercury-News on June 12, 2015 at  Jaron Lanier wrote Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2015), from which I quoted p. 356.  I blogged about Lanier last on May 11, 2015.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Friedrich Hayek.

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