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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Precarious Future of Jobs

When someone quotes a dubious statistic in conversation, I often reply by interjecting the somewhat humorous, "Did you know that 47% of all statistics are made up on the spot?" I always use 47% as the made up number - it's a nice prime number and has a good ring to it in my opinion.

So I almost always chuckle when someone puts forth 47 percent as an actual statistic. In this case:
...a now-famous Oxford University analysis forecasted that 47 percent of all jobs are threatened in the United States [by robots and automation].
Yup, that definitely elicited a chuckle. Yet while the exact percentage of jobs that are threatened is of course completely unknown and the statistic is meaningless in any case without a timeframe associated with it (threatened by next week? Next year? A million years?), the concept is serious and perhaps deadly serious.

As a roboticist, I do see automation based on AI and increasingly intelligent and flexible computing accelerating. For example, autonomous vehicles alone could replace several million workers within ten years (maybe more, maybe less, who knows?).

I predict my company of 4 people will eliminate thousands or maybe even tens of thousands of jobs in agriculture over the next 5 years. And the problem is that as workers move to new jobs, we'll end up automating those too, making it difficult for them to ever get back to a stable job situation. That's potentially different than in the past. Sure, buggy whip workers lost their jobs once upon a time but then went on to work in the automobile industry which was stable for the rest of their careers. Maybe new industries and opportunities will develop as old jobs are automated away, but it looks to me like the destruction of jobs in Schumpeter's Creative Destruction process will far outpace the creation, especially the creation of lower to middle skilled occupations.

While automation could promise ever more plentiful availability of goods, it's possible that we'll face widespread poverty as more and more workers find it impossible to land stable and reasonably well-paying jobs. One straightforward way of mitigating that is the Universal Basic Income where all citizens get a fixed monthly stipend, no strings attached. That would at least keep people from starving in the streets. And if so much is automated and there's so much wealth being produced, the UBI would be easily affordable.

But what about work itself? Can humans live without working? Or is work part of what humans need to be fulfilled? Are idle hands the devil's workshop? Will opioid and other drug addiction become even more widespread? Will all these things lead to the collapse of civilization?

Or will we all become barbershop quartet singers (I'm the guy on the right) and live happily ever after?


Bret said...

The announcer muffed our name - our quartet name is Syzygy.

Clovis e Adri said...

Thanks Bret, you just made my coffee break special. You Syzygy guys are getting pretty good at this.

I can see robots taking it all over and turning us all into happy singers. Actually, I somehow think I live that UBI life already - to do physics, and teach classes, is really fun to me and I would keep doing it wether as paid faculty in the University (as it is today) or as UBI recipient in another place and time.

The caveat being, I think the transition from out present world to the robotic one will be very painful, because in the begin the UBI won't pay for itself and robots will not have increased wealth at a pace fast enough to cover everybody.

And that's taking account of societies that are already rich and with economies well placed in the technological world. For societies like mine, or even poorer ones, it will be way worse.

How long does that transition period takes? I guess a few to very many decades, depending on which country, and what happens in between. May be pretty ugly in some places.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "You Syzygy guys are getting pretty good at this."

Syzygy is not my main quartet. The Barbershop Harmony Society has various conventions and the central attraction is often a quartet/chorus competition. I wanted my main quartet (Pacific Experience) to enter, but the other three didn't want to do it.

So one day, after a chorus rehearsal, some chorus members were drinking a few beers and, since singers gotta sing, we were singing bits of this and that, often in groups of 4, and during one stretch where I was singing one of us said, "hey, we sound pretty good, let's enter that quartet contest in 4 weeks - what a great idea!." So I entered us 2 hours before the entry deadline. Then, um, well, in the cold light of a new day, we realized that perhaps listening to the beer talking wasn't that great of an idea after all. First, we are 3 basses and a tenor (who ended up singing lead) so we had no repertoire overlap. Second, we had never sung together before. Third, we were all busy and were only able to fit in three rehearsals.

So the video is what happens when you throw 4 random singers together and give them 3 rehearsals to learn 2 songs.

I chuckle looking at the video because I have a "what the hell is my next note?" look on my face a lot of the time and that's exactly what I was thinking. But all singing is good singing as far as I'm concerned and I had a lot of fun. So maybe listening to the beer talking isn't such a terrible idea!

Clovis wrote: "I think the transition from out present world to the robotic one will be very painful..."

I agree. As the article points out, a potential historical parallel is the transition from farming to factory work. While it certainly made us better off overall, it was extremely painful for those stuck on the destruction side of creative destruction. And that transition was many decades.

Peter said...

a potential historical parallel is the transition from farming to factory work. While it certainly made us better off overall, it was extremely painful for those stuck on the destruction side.

Still, not many of them elected to try and go back. Plus I'm not at all sure it is historically accurate to speak of them generally as "forced off the land". Many of them jumped at the chance for greater hope and self-respect, not unlike the immigrant experience. That was tough and didn't always work out either (more immigrants than we realize went back), but let me play partial devil's advocate. The transition from farm to factory in the Industrial Revolution involved much more than the dislocation of a job or career or skill change. There was geographical upheaval and all the changes that went with a shift from a semi-isolated rural life to a high density (squalid) urban life. What comparables do you foresee here? OK, people are going to lose their jobs and will have to find something else to do to support themselves, but will that necessarily involve massive population transfers and cultural dislocations?

About five years ago on a vacation to the States, I met up with a guy at a motel who joined me for a 6:30 am politically incorrect cigarette. He was from Maine. His job as a foreman in a factory was lost when the factory closed, but he had found new work as an assistant manager of a newly-opened local casino. Not much cultural or family dislocation at all. The inner-social conservative in me screamed that wasn't a promising solution for a resilient, forward-looking society guided by the Founders, but I held my peace and afterwards wondered what exactly my problem was. Then I thought about the unlimited potential of the porn industry and remembered what my problem was.

Bret said...

Peter asks: "...but will that necessarily involve massive population transfers and cultural dislocations?"

See "The China Syndrome: Local Labor Market Effects of Import Competition in the United States" ( ). In it, the authors (Autor, Dorn, Hanson) describe regional devastation which in turn are leading to population transfers and cultural dislocations. See also the distribution of the opioid epidemic which correlates with the regions that have been devastated by Chinese imports. Indeed, this paper was the instigation for my post The Darkness of Light - A Story of Economic Scale. One of the biggest problems of Creative Destruction, in my opinion, is that it isn't very evenly distributed but ends up being concentrated in localized areas and those areas then have a hell of a time recovering because they suffer from brain and capital drain.

Peter said...

Geez Bret, you are cruel. I ask a simple question about robots and you condemn me to wade through fifty pages of academic bafflegab about free trade with China. I skimmed it, but all I saw was successive repeats of the truism that those who produce goods at a lower cost will squeeze out high-cost producers. This is news?

About those robots...

Bret said...


The point of the "academic bafflegab" is that the distribution of "high-cost producers" is not evenly geographically distributed, but will hit some localized regions much harder than others: first, even if high-cost producers were completely random, sheer luck would produce clusters of them (for example, if you throw darts, your darts won't be evenly distributed but will cluster in spots); and second, because of the tendency to specialize, this effect is further exacerbated (think of Detroit and automobiles) - in this case the metaphor is that the clusters of darts attract more darts to further specialization.

In the end, the effect of these regional high-cost producers being decimated by low cost producers (in the "academic bafflegab" this happened to be China) will almost "necessarily involve massive population transfers and cultural dislocations," as you put it. The "cultural dislocations" occur in these decimated regions causing a brain and productivity gain to less devastated regions.

Peter wrote: "I ask a simple question about robots..."

What was that question, specifically? I just went back and reread your comment and didn't see a question about robots.

Peter said...

But wasn't your whole post about robots? I'm getting confused. Maybe we should start over. Got any more cool singing videos to get us on our way? :-)

Bret said...

Ahhhh, I see. My post was about robots (and singing and made up statistics and creative destruction and ...) and you asked questions about what I wrote so therefore you had questions about robots.

Ok, did I address everything you asked?