A few weeks back, a story about how humans were losing the labour race against robots was making the media rounds. The mini-furor was kicked off by comments from MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson on 60 Minutes.
“Technology is always creating jobs,” he said. “It’s always destroying jobs. But right now the pace is accelerating. It’s faster we think than ever before in history. So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.”
From reading most of the news stories on the subject, it was easy to figure Brynjolfsson for a techno-pessimist – someone who, despite his job at MIT, feared the encroachment and spreading of technology.
The thing is, Brynjolfsson is also the co-author of a 2011 book called Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. If you’ve read it, you’ll know he’s anything but a cynic.
The book spells out how the recent Great Recession ended with a jobless recovery. One of the surest signs that a country is actually in recovery (besides positive economic growth) is when businesses start to spend on things like equipment, computers and software again, which did occur in the United States. Another is that they also start to hire, but that didn’t happen.
U.S. unemployment continues to hover above 7 per cent, or significantly higher than the 4.6 per cent logged in 2007, before the recession. It gets worse than that, according to Brynjolfsson and his co-author James McAfee: a general lack of hiring has resulted in zero net jobs being created over the past decade.
Why haven’t businesses been hiring over the last while in general and the past few years specifically? Automation is the answer, which is where the robots-outpacing-humans part comes in. With machines, software and algorithms getting smarter and better, humans are being required less and less. The proof is in the pudding, the authors argue, since U.S. productivity – a business’s output divided by the number of people it employs to produce it – has been a non-stop steamroller since pretty much World War II. Jobs down plus productivity up equals clearly means more and more is being produced by machines and automation.
That’s where most press reports stopped. But Race Against the Machine (a great title for a book, by the way) suggests this is just a temporary blip, with its authors actually quite optimistic about the future. We’re clearly in the midst of an upheaval akin to 19th century industrialization – everything, especially our job situation, is in flux. This isn’t a problem we haven’t dealt with before, we just need to figure it all out, the authors argue.
Those who try to fight the machine will lose, since the machine will only get smarter, faster and better. We humans can do that too, but we’re much slower at it. As the book suggests, the jobs humans must start doing more – because machines are not likely to do them anytime soon – involve creativity, team building and leadership. Conversely, if your current job involves someone else telling you what to to do, you’d better upgrade your skills because that job will eventually be done by a machine, which excels at performing instructions.
A recent Wired story estimated that about 70 per cent of the existing jobs today will be replaced in this way within this century. That number may even be on the low side, considering that 200 years ago a similar percentage of Americans worked on a farm, versus just 1 per cent today.
The key to winning the race against the machine, the book authors write, is to actually race with them. One particularly good anecdote talks about how chess masters have stopped trying to beat computers, but are now rather using computers to assist in their own decision making. It’s classic case of, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
In this sense, the potential for new human jobs is actually infinite. With technology expanding exponentially, so too are the possibilities for mash-ups, which covers everything from Facebook to cellphones. Each is a combination of a host of rapidly advancing technologies. Humans have proven very adept at creating these mash-ups. Machines, not so much. As the authors put it, “Combinatorial explosion is one of the few mathematical functions that outgrows an exponential trend. And that means that combinatorial innovation is the best way for human ingenuity to stay in the race with Moore’s Law.”
More humans therefore need to stop doing rote jobs and start thinking up new stuff. That’s a surefire way to counter the negative employment trends of the past while.
Perhaps the best quote on the topic comes from Stanford University economics professor Paul Romer, who attributes the current angst to one very particular human failing – a frequent lack of imagination:
Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding. Possibilities do not add up. They multiply.