Over the past four months, half a dozen articles on work-related areas I have written about have reached me. What do they have to say?
One old erroneous but still popular notion was the subject of two of them. In “How Unskilled Americans Are Creating a ‘Crisis’ for the U.S.” (U.S. News & World Report, June 7th), Andrew Soergel passed along a series of incorrect statements. There is no “skills gap plaguing the private sector,” only a disconnect between what private employers would like to pay and what their applicants will accept. We can’t “match those 6.9 million (unemployed Americans to 6 (million job openings),” since many of those allegedly available positions are either bogus or require unreasonable qualifications. No United States Labor Secretary has any business saying that “education is not focusing on the skills demanded by today’s workforce as well as they could or should,” without mentioning the widespread need for employers to rediscover training. There are plenty of candidates skilled in “trade professions like welding and mechanical repair,” now that community colleges are teaching those things, but they can’t be had for the likes of $10 per hour. Robert Samuelson, writing in the June 26th Investor’s Business Daily (“Is the Labor Shortage Here?”), at least questioned mistaken views such as a pending labor shortage in which “the postwar employment model might make a comeback” (not with latent demand for over 17 million jobs), and that a 1% increase in “the labor share of the economy” will mean higher worker demand, as it is “too low” (not when additional copies of ever-increasing proportion of products require virtually no more human involvement).
The actual future of 3D printing, increasingly labeled “additive manufacturing,” was well assessed by the unbilled Economist authors of “Printing things everywhere” and “The factories of the future,” both in the July 1st issue. Although we now know that this technology will not be on a par with invention of the automobile, and “will never revolutionize mass production,” it will still be greatly valuable for “producing one-off prototypes, because changes are more easily and cheaply made by tweaking a 3D printer’s software than by resetting lots of tools in a factory.” It is also on its way to producing replacement body tissue, or “bioprinting,” bringing us ever closer to science fiction author Larry Niven’s “autodoc.”
With its inferior-good status among ordinary working people, is it true that “the gig economy is a boon for boomer retirees” (Steve Vernon, CBS News, July 3)? Yes, I think it is. It facilitates many low-paying but pleasant positions, such as babysitting, providing rides, and dog walking, for those not needing full-time income and therefore more willing to accept its shortcomings. Expect it to continue being beneficial, with the people over 50 and over 60 to whom Vernon referred including more and more over 70 and 80.
The remaining two articles take us further into the world of science-fiction-meets-reality. In the first, Maggie Astor’s July 25th New York Times “Microchip Implants for Employees? One Company Says Yes” told about a Wisconsin technology company allowing its workers to opt into having “a chip the size of a grain of rice injected between their thumb and index finger,” allowing them to effortlessly gain access to company buildings and pay for cafeteria food. That convenience, and the fun of being in on new technology, have won out for almost two-thirds of Three Square Market’s employees, but others have declined, due to being “a little nervous about implanting something” or perhaps by what a cited business professor pointed out, that “once (the chips) are implanted, it’s very hard to predict or stop a future widening of their usage,” in ways that may not even be shared with workers. There is, indeed, a gap between one supervisor vaguely suspecting that someone is spending an unusual amount of time in the bathroom, and another receiving periodic reports telling exactly when and for how long. Therefore, even if nonparticipants have no objection to carrying cell phones with continuous GPS tracking, this idea does not rate to become the American norm.
Another long-held suspicion of mine is that “artificial intelligence” is not intelligent at all, and still ultimately only resembles 60-plus year-old algorithmic computer-code-interpreting capability. Gary Marcus, writing in the July 29th New York Times (“Artificial Intelligence Is Stuck. Here’s How to Move It Forward.”), seemed to share that view, saying such things as “computers that can educate themselves – a mark of true intelligence – remain a dream” and “such systems can neither comprehend what is going on in complex visual scenes (“Who is chasing whom and why?”) nor follow simple instructions (“Read this story and summarize what it means.”).” He suggested that machines be trained, somehow, to use “bottom-up knowledge,” or “the kind of raw information we get directly from our senses,” in huge national facilities. That seems a long way off, and may never happen without a huge conceptual breakthrough – so for now, please remember that computers still cannot, and are still no threat to, think. But we can – and, more than ever if anything, we must.