In my February column,”The Challenge of Automation”, I began a review of some of the ideas in Martin Ford’s book,“ “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” . His basic premise is that as technology grows exponentially so will automation and its net effect will be to destroy more jobs than it creates causing unemployment to grow and economic chaos will ensue. He concludes that we must start now (this was 2009) to plan for this crisis and take what steps we can to deal with it.
The title of the book is a metaphor for the way free market capitalism works. The Tunnel represents the boundaries of our global economy. Consumers (the workers as well as the capitalists) are represented by floating lights of varying intensity depending on their wealth. Businesses are represented as TV screens which advertise their products. The purchase of a product by a consumer shows up as one of the lights touching a screen and, as a result, the screen gets a bit brighter and the floating light dims a bit representing a transaction (a transfer of wealth) within the Tunnel. I found this metaphor a bit of a stretch but I liked Ford’s later metaphor of a river out of which water is pumped --- you’ll have to read the book for a detailed description.
The author argues that since near full automation is inevitable, the best solution is to bite the bullet and pay people who have lost their jobs to automation so that they may continue to consume goods and services so that the overall economy will not collapse. He views both capitalists and workers are consumers but since the workers are a much larger population, when the workers lose their jobs, they can no longer participate in the free market and the economy eventually tanks. He suggests that the businesses which save money by replacing human workers with machines(machines are cheaper and no payroll taxes) be taxed to pay the displaced workers. He understands that there will be a massive pushback against this idea as it smacks of Socialism but believes attitudes can and will change especially under massive economic pressure.
In fact, much of the criticism of the book revolves around a free-market vs govt-imposed solution. However, I believe that it’s not an either/or situation --- it’s both/and. Our economy has evolved into a hybrid Capitalist and a Socialist one like two horses pulling one chariot (to use Plato’s imagery). Our job is to keep the chariot on course by not letting either horse pull us too far to the right or the left. We have to regulate the unfettered freedom and underlying greed of capitalism which can crush the working class as well as the over-regulation of unshackled socialism which can constrict individual choice and create a bloated bureaucracy. The enemy is not Capitalism or Socialism; to paraphrase Kafka ,“The enemy is laziness and impatience “ in ourselves, not the economic systems we devise.
Ford also argues that while providing additional educational resources will slow the job displacements of automation, it cannot stop the ultimate result of massive job losses. In fact he makes the claim that education alone is not the determinative factor deciding whether a particular job can be automated or not. Until recently, most economists have opined that automation displaces low-skilled workers more than skilled ones; basically blue collar jobs are more likely to be replaced than white collar jobs. However, Ford provides several counterexamples throughout the book such as a housekeeper vs a radiologist --- which would you predict is most likely to be replaced by automation? Certainly the radiologist needs higher level skills than a maid, but Ford makes a strong case that it is the job of the maid that is more difficult to automate.
Computers are getting very good at pattern recognition --- the armed services use software to analyze aerial photos --- they can spot a tank in a forest. Why then couldn’t a program analyze an X-ray or an MRI? Ford believes it’s only a matter of time before a computer can replace a radiologist or at least most of their functions so that fewer and fewer need to be hired by hospitals. But what about the maid’s job? One could argue that most anyone can it, but it turns out to be very difficult to program all of the situations that a housekeeper has to deal with. For example, what should our robot do when it finds a pair of glasses on the dining room table and the case for them by the TV? A human housekeeper would have no trouble identifying the item on the table no matter what its orientation and making the inference that these glasses belong in the case by the TV --- but this situation is easily left out of the program that drives the robot. In determining what sort of jobs are easy and hard to automate, Ford points out that it is more important how well a job description is suited to conversion to software. Once a process can be fully described in a language the computer can understand and execute then we can say that we’ve made tremendous progress towards automating that process.
An interesting counterargument that Ford considers is that nanotechnology will save us. With nanotech we will be able to create food and medicine, indeed any material, by manipulating molecular structures --- the building blocks of all matter. When this day arrives, we can surely rest easy as all of everyone’s material needs will be met and we can revert to great-ape behaviour where we spend most of time eating and lolling around in the sunshine. But will we be truly happy? Many people’s idea of hell is an eternal vacation in Miami Beach. Work supplies meaning to our lives and without it many would be deeply unsatisfied and unhappy. That said, Ford does not see the nano solution arriving anytime in the near future and he advises not to put many eggs in that basket.
For more see Paul Krugman’s article, “Robots and Robber Barons” at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/10/opinion/krugman-robots-and-robber-barons.html?ref=paulkrugman&_r=0
and Matt Miller’s, “The Robots are coming” at:
as well as (some of ) the reviews of the book at Amazon.com, one of which makes the same observation that I made in my doctoral dissertation almost 40 years ago: humans and computers are connected more and more each day. The correct view is a partnership in which we humans do the things that we do best and let the computers do what they do best. All we have to figure out is who is best at what...
Finally, let’s take a look at what the great twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has said about automation, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. “ For example, I can use an automobile to transport me from location A to B without knowing anything at all about mechanical engineering. But he also cautioned, “It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur: — like unto an arrow in the hand of a child. “ In other words, technology is a double-edged sword --- we must be careful not to let it cut us as we use it to cut our problems down to size.