As we move into April’s stories, the views on automata and employment seem to shift. “Robotics revolution: To really help American workers, we should invest in robots,” written by Nikolaus Correll and published in Salon on April 2nd, gave us something on the need for these devices to be integrated with humans’ jobs. Correll’s main idea is that China, although once taking over American jobs with their own workers, is now leading at automating them, with 2015 purchases of industrial robots over twice the American total. He also pointed out, correctly, that robots are not only getting cheaper but easier to program, with the latter likely to be increasingly done by their owners, as “building and programming robots is very similar both physically and intellectually to doing your own plumbing, electrical wiring and car maintenance.”
Kriti Sharma’s “You’ll Be Working With Robots Sooner Than You Think” (Fortune, April 10th) dealt more with artificial intelligence (AI) and how it is expected to be used not only to get automata to learn to do their jobs more efficiently but to behave ethically. Sharma mentioned the possibility, perhaps less fanciful than it seems, “to create a rewards-based learning system that motivates robots and AI to achieve high levels of productivity.” Indeed, throughout the process of AI getting more robust, we will need to continuously hold off the problem of goal-seeking software lacking humane underpinnings.
“No, robots won’t put us all on the unemployment line,” Betsy McCaughey’s New York Post story headline said on April 11th. She fell into the common trap of assuming higher-technology jobs created by the likes of automata, in this case “monitoring or repairing a fleet of delivery robots,” will be as plentiful as those made obsolete, and called those advocating robot taxes Luddites. Better were her statements that “college is no cure-all,” that “the economy thrives when businesses, not politicians, call the shots on technology,” and that “embracing robots will create more goods and services, a bigger pie for all to share.” None of these three ideas, however, are inconsistent with a large net loss in employment opportunities.
After the startling but defensible view in the May 3rd Atlantic Daily that 65% of Las Vegas jobs could be automated away within eight years, we move on to Greg Ip’s May 10th Wall Street Journal effort “Robots Aren’t Destroying Enough Jobs.” The author offers several thought-provoking points, starting with his declaration that “”Robot” is shorthand for any device or algorithm that does what humans once did, from mechanical combines and thermostats to dishwashers and airfare search sites.” He asserted that “American consumption is gravitating toward goods and services whose production is not easily automated” (not sure at all), and, although he wrote that the number of child-care workers doubled from 1990 to 2010, that could change even if “working parents won’t leave their children in the care of a robot,” if, for example, fewer workers can care for more children through remote or semi-remote monitoring.
“Will Robots Fire Us All?” Bill Samuelson, this time in the May 10th Investor’s Business Daily, is at it again, and still hanging his I-don’t-think-so attitude on the simply incorrect idea that new technologies consistently create as many positions as they eliminate. He will be disappointed.
Simon Parkin, in the May 12th 1843 Magazine, made a valiant effort to show how we can succeed at “Teaching Robots Right from Wrong,” but the doubts he brought up demonstrated that it won’t be easy. First, he mentioned that if hard-coding of core values was implemented a few centuries ago, it might have directed machines to agree with slavery and women’s unequal rights. Second, as I have written about driverless vehicles, in some situations they face, robots must be told which lives are, in effect, more valuable than others. Third, while artificial intelligence may allow automata to learn from mistakes, “a killer robot is more likely to be disassembled than offered the chance.” Fourth, although Parkin discussed the possibilities of learning, for example, the details of how to behave properly before, during, and after a restaurant dinner, those things are remarkably variable and excruciatingly difficult to precisely define, as anyone who has studied ethnomethodology can attest. I predict that those issues, even after they have been overcome enough with driverless cars for them to be well established on our roads, will still be severe enough to bar many less dedicated machines.
We end with an unusual but exaggerated viewpoint in “Robots Will Save The Economy” (Bret Swanson and Michael Mandel, The Wall Street Journal, May 14th). The authors made the case that our country can use more technology, and they are right, but that won’t help jobs in the ways they mentioned, such as trucks, which are getting ever hardier, requiring more mechanics once they are being self-driven for more miles than with drivers. We have great things coming up, but such as 3D-printed body organs won’t permanently help employment even if they arrive this century, and the comparison they cited, of 397,000 new e-commerce jobs in ten years with 76,000 in-person retailing ones lost, cannot be a valid one.
What does this all mean? As the last article shows, it is tempting to confuse technology’s net value, which is extremely high, with its overall effect on jobs, which is sharply negative. We need, though, to keep those two ideas separate while maintaining awareness of both. The first thing will help us tremendously, and we can deal effectively with the second. That is the real significance of robots.