Race Against… On Point

Erik and I were on Tom Ashbrook’s NPR show On Point today to talk about Race Against the Machine. The Web page devoted to the show is here, and the audio file of the show is here.

Tom did a great job guiding the conversation, and bringing us back to the big issue: where are all the jobs going to come from?

In the book, our short term answer answer to that question is, in a word, entrepreneurship. My longer term answer is I don’t know. As computers encroach on more and more human skills over time, I’m not sure what we’re going to need human workers for, or how many will be required.

And I don’t think the happy history of technology creating more jobs than it destroys is a great guide any more. Because all previous technologies combined have encroached only on a small set of human skills —  a small subset of the things an employer might hire a person to do.

The digital machines of today and (especially) tomorrow are encroaching on many more of these skills, including pattern matching and complex communication. So what my colleague and dissertation chair David Upton has called the ‘economic refuge’ available for human workers is shrinking now, and I get the impression it’s shrinking fast.

Do you share that impression? And if so, what do we do about it?

  • Anonymous

    Coming up with a new business model is difficult and is likely to emerge over time. This is what will drive jobs. The obvious analogy is to when railroads put an end to the Pony Express and the related employment. The number of people employed per mail item was much lower for rail roads, and the rail roads got mail to its destination much faster too. All familiar themes for the computer age and their effect on jobs.

    But, like you, I don’t know what that new business model will be so I can’t say where the jobs will come from, but I do know there will be fewer jobs available for what we do now.

  • Anonymous

    One scenario: In the (not-too-distant) future every human will be given title to a robot at birth as an unalienable right and will take possession of it at18 (equal opportunity). That robot will be a personal, nonhuman, slave bidden to do the human’s work to earn wealth. That new economy will be built around making, buying, selling, and trading better, more advanced personal robots to earn more wealth, faster, for the owner. Pretty much a return to the economic model at the time of the Roman Empire. Until the robots get wise to it. Then something else needs to be figured out. By the robots.

  • J W Johnston

    One of the many interesting points in the On Point segment I found particularly interesting was the brief discussion around the Voltaire (Candide) quote: “Work keeps three evils at bay: boredom, vice, and want.”

    Does (an increasingly-automated) society really need work to stave off boredom and vice? Or is “work for wages” a virtue instilled by past necessity and/or elite power brokers? What would happen if more people got to live like students, homemakers, retirees, and the independently wealthy?

    What studies have been done? What does history show?

    I’m tending to think we might see a change that will, as Robert Anton Wilson put it, “make the Renaissance look like a high school science fair.”

    Imagine if the 99% has the “leisure” currently only available to the 1%. What great advances could come from that? Or would the small percentage of deadbeats in that group (present in both groups) somehow cause more harms than goods?

    Remember, Candide is a satire.


    Robert Anton Wilson “The RICH Economy” (http://www.whywork.org/rethinking/whywork/rawilson.html)
    Douglas Rushkoff “Are jobs obsolete?” (http://edition.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/09/07/rushkoff.jobs.obsolete/index.html)
    Bertrand Russell “In Praise of Idleness” (http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html)
    Louis Kelso “The Capitalist Manifesto” (http://www.kelsoinstitute.org/pdf/cm-entire.pdf)
    Marshall Brain “Robotic Freedom” (http://marshallbrain.com/robotic-freedom.htm)

  • Anonymous

    You clearly have little idea of what homemakers do, or students for that matter, who don’t have scholarships and parents who pay their tuition. I get your overall point, I think, but man. . .this shows a huge limitation in your vantage point as relates to the way these particular groups (and I suspect others) live and work–yes, homemakers work. Hard, and they don’t get paid in the traditional sense. I hope this might prompt you to ask, “what else am I missing?” You also seem to have left out those who really value work, and who love what they do–the same people who, in your imagined leisure scenario would have the motivation to create “advances”. Of course, in a world of leisure and less “work”, the very notion of what constitutes an “advance” would change. Perhaps an advance would suddenly be something that gets us out of our boredom and leisure and into . . . working?

  • J W Johnston

    The main point I was inelegantly trying to make was to wonder if society would come unglued if people didn’t have to rely on paychecks to thrive. It’s a common (mis)conception that people who don’t work for a living are deadbeats. Or as Voltaire implied, they’d succumb to “boredom and vice.” By citing students, retirees, and homemakers, I was challenging that.

    (BTW, my current thinking is that it may make sense for all people to receive income as stipends, dividends from capital ownership, or other such non-job sources. They can earn more through contributions above and beyond basic law abiding, as valued by the free market. So people, so inclined, could continue “working” in any way they see fit.)

    But before we get comfortable with non-work-for-wage income alternatives, we need to understand if mandatory work for wages is somehow critical to the economic, social, and psychological well being of society.

    Check out some of the references I listed. They articulate this idea much better than I. (May need to google. Appears links are busted.)

    The point about how various human activities appear to be unfairly valued is a whole other important issue, which should also be addressed by an improved economic system.

  • http://andrewmcafee.org/blog Andrew McAfee

    JW and anonymous, thanks for your comments. JW, you raise a great issue, and I don’t anyone knows whether a ‘post-work world’ would be a healthy place or not. I’m afraid that it might not be, which is why we included the Voltaire quote in the book. William Julius Wilson has said that it’s the absence of work even more than the poverty that makes so many urban American ghettos such dire places.

  • A modest proposal

    A reasonable business model would be to just put everyone on a baseline of welfare and let the chips land where they may. Then focus could be diverted to population explosion and environmental dilemmas.