There was a time in America, not too long ago, when most people, including journalists, business leaders, politicians, and scholars, were full-throated advocates of technologically powered productivity growth. They understood that through mechanization, automation, and other forms of innovation, we can produce more, better, and cheaper goods and services, and have higher incomes. It was understood that some workers might lose their jobs after we figured out how to do them more efficiently, but most Americans believed, to quote Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Those days are gone, though. Current opinion now routinely echoes the mythical 19th-century machine destroyer Ned Ludd, warning in a growing avalanche of books, academic theses, market forecasts, and op-eds that technology is leading us to a world of mass unemployment, that it is creating a newly idle lumpenproletariat, and that we had better put in place a universal basic income (UBI), under which the state cuts a check to everyone, regardless of their income or work status, if we are to have any hope of avoiding mass unrest.
This kind of worry, verging on “robophobia,” represents a remarkable reversal from a long period in American history — stretching from the 1890s to the early 1970s — when most Americans sang the praises of technology as an engine of progress that not only raised our living standards but also made America great. Exultantly titled books such as Triumphs and Wonders of the 19th Century, The Marvels of Modern Mechanism, Our Wonderful Progress, and Modern Wonder Workers were common. When Henry Adams viewed the huge dynamo for producing electricity at the 1900 Great Exhibition in Paris, he wrote (in the third person) of his reaction:
As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring.
Harvard economist Benjamin Anderson spoke for many when he wrote 40 years later that “on no account, must we retard or interfere with the most rapid utilization of new inventions.” And it wasn’t just defenders of capitalism who saw technology as a progressive force. Socialists did too, as when Jack London praised automation, proclaiming, “Let us not destroy these wonderful machines that produce efficiently and cheaply. Let us control them. Let us profit by their efficiency and cheapness. Let us run them by ourselves. That, gentlemen, is socialism.”
These days, Harvard economists are as likely as not to worry that automation is hurting too many people. Larry Summers wrote in the Financial Times that “it is widely feared that half the jobs in the economy might be eliminated by innovations such as self-driving vehicles, automatic checkout machines and expert systems that trade securities more effectively than humans can.” Summers, a macroeconomist who has in the past expressed faith in the Fed’s ability to achieve near-full employment, now believes that one-third of men between the ages of 25 and 54 could be unemployed because of technology by midcentury.
Such voices have been growing louder in recent decades. Artificial-intelligence scientist Nils Nilsson was in the advance guard when he warned in 1984 that “we must convince our leaders that they should give up the notion of ‘full employment.’ . . . The pace of technological change is accelerating.” But what’s different today is that such thinking has become a common, widely repeated narrative, greatly amplified by a supercharged media landscape and a packed calendar of “thought leader” events. You cannot attend Davos, a G20 summit, or a TED talk without being told that the pace of technological change is accelerating and the days of “work” as we know it are numbered. Continue…
there’s been sooooo much stuff posted lately about AI, autonomous driving cars, and robotics in general of late that it’s like an invisible drum beating away somewhere in the background… not to mention all the stuff from F8 this past week… anywho good read, especially over some delicious coffee on this fine friday morning.