Robotics, automation and underemployment

Thanks to Randy Sargent for sending on a link to Annie Lowrey’s article in the Times Magazine, Hey Robot, Which Cat is Cuter? This article mentions Jaron Lanier’s book as well as Race Against the Machine, both books I have references frequently in this blog, to tie together arguments regarding underemployment. The crux of the debate rests on interpreting just how job categories and needs change as automation and AI proceed on a one-way march: if new innovation forges new industries rapidly, then we humans blossom into new styles of intellectual work (think App-writing?). If the new innovation matches human capabilities at an ever-accelerating pace, then we have a runaway train problem- even structural improvements that could compensate over the long-term become irrelevant as the gap widens constantly in the short term. I find particularly telling a quote Annie provides from Bill Gates:

“Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses” is coming, Bill Gates said recently at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

The debate goes on, but evidence continues to build. And as with all accelerating phenomena (think climate change), once we are all convinced of the causes and effects of  chronic underemployment, it will likely be too late to act with patience.


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