Friday, June 9, 2017

Robots and Jobs: Three More Months in the Books – Part 1

There has been no shortage of recommended countermeasures, if you can call them that, to artificial workers put forward since February. 

In “Automated labor apocalypse:  Why a French socialist’s case for taxing robots is better than Bill Gates’ idea” (Salon, February 26th), Kate Aronoff put the ideas of robot levies and a guaranteed income together, and proposed the former pay for the latter.  That’s not a bad rough idea, though, as Lawrence Summers pointed out soon thereafter (“Picking on robots won’t deal with job destruction,” The Washington Post, March 5), we don’t have much agreement on what constitutes those automata, which are, for work-task-replacement purposes, little or no different from “kiosks that dispense airplane boarding passes,” “word-processing programs that accelerate the production of documents,” “mobile banking technologies,” “autonomous vehicles,” or even “vaccines that, by preventing disease, destroy jobs in medicine.”  Although images of almost and increasingly human machines with humanoid appearance can trigger our emotions more than thoughts of NCR cash dispensers, their effects on anthropoid workers are no scarier.

If we see them as opponents, can we use a primer titled “How to Beat the Robots”?  Yes, even if we disagree with that premise.  In this piece, published March 7th in The New York Times, author Claire Cain Miller presented a variety of ideas on how we can, even if we cannot truly overcome the things, keep prospering ourselves.  They include “more education and different kinds” – while Miller’s first suggestions of raising enrollment in universities, stepping up vocational study and “government retraining programs” are all somewhere between misguided and overrated, she did ask for more coursework on “skills that still give humans an edge over machines, like creativity and collaboration” and to find ways for people “to learn flexibility and how to learn new things,” the last being what we could call meta-learning.  She also said that governments could “subsidize private employment,” perhaps, as has been done before, by partially paying compensation, and touched on infrastructure efforts, “strengthening labor unions” (not responsive to the problem of too few jobs), bringing in “advanced manufacturing” (we’re doing that when we can as it is is), subsidies for relocation (thinkable), and a grouping of ways to “bolster the safety net,” ranging from wage insurance to guaranteed income.  Miller’s thorough survey of possibilities also included a section on ways we could “change the way work is done,” including making benefits portable (as we should be and are doing now), “building co-working spaces,” facilitating more small businesses, “reducing licensing requirements” (would help specific people but not create jobs), and the most appropriate idea for quick implementation, bringing workweeks below 40 hours for the first time in, incredibly, 77 years.  The final section, “Give Workers More of the Profits,” provided a brief but even-handed look at higher minimum wages, along with changes to corporate levies, instituting “a minimum pension” as an adjunct to Social Security, and the aforementioned robot taxes.  In all, Miller provided an excellent comprehensive look at what we might do, not only about automation but, by inference, about foreign competition, efficiency, and other factors making our jobs crisis permanent. 

Are we heading for a “looming economic collapse”?  In Fox Business on March 28, one prominent figure said so in “Robots Will Steal U.S. Jobs Warns Billionaire Investor Jeff Greene.”  As gloomy as this view may be, it is sort of refreshing, considering the nonreversing nature of technical progress, to see someone claiming unequivocally that we really do have a problem.  The piece cited PricewaterhouseCoopers research concluding that the next 15 years may see 38% of American work opportunities lost to artificial intelligence alone (high, but believable), and quoted Greene as saying that, during “the next five to seven years,” office positions would be savaged by artificial intelligence and “big data” as well as robots.  He also wrote as I did, that reduced employment is no excuse for our need to “embrace technology,” but ended with the thought that “we have to love it.”  No, we don’t. 

Perhaps, though, the tide in the press is turning.  On March 28th, Claire Cain Miller returned to the Times with “Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs.”  She cited a paper by Boston University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Pascual Restrepo and Daron Acemoglu, who concluded that the pervasive idea “that increased automation would create new, better jobs, so employment and wages would eventually return to their previous levels” was empirically unfounded, and that many of the displaced workers successfully returning take a long time to do that.  Miller also touched on the idea, put forth by another M.I.T. economist, “that machines will complement instead of replace humans, and cannot replicate human traits like common sense and empathy,” but did not make a key point, that there is no need for empathy in painting, welding, or even analyzing X-rays.   On the same day, Matthew Rozsa reached a similar conclusion in Salon (“Steve Mnuchin is wrong:  Robots really could take your job.”), naming a National Bureau of Economic Research estimate that each automaton replaces an average of 6.2 human workers, and that implementation of each 1,000 such devices was associated with a 0.18-0.34% employment rate drop and an even higher average wage reduction, in contrast to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s rather opposite conclusion that it would take “50-100 more years” for the robotics threat to employment to materialize. 

We end with a March 30th Harvard Business Review look, from that publication’s usual big-business vantage point, “How to Win with Automation (Hint:  It’s Not Chasing Efficiency).”  Author Greg Satell called the 20th century “an era of unprecedented prosperity” despite jobs lost to mechanization, but did not mention that being due to the massive widening of the third phase of economic activity, or services.  Although, as he wrote, task automation can lead to task commoditization, many strictly in-person work details are no less so.  Satell named, as high-level strategies, “innovate business models” by setting workers on nonautomatable tasks, “redesign jobs” accordingly, and recognize that “humanity is becoming the scarce resource,” a view which would resonate better if we could quickly absorb fewer than 16.75 million new positions, including almost two-thirds by people not counted as officially jobless.  Still, as with the other articles here, it is healthy for robots to be taken seriously as anti-employment forces. 

More on this topic next week.        

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