August 12, 2014

A critical review of Pew's survey on automation and jobs

The Pew Research Center last week published the findings of a survey of technology experts on an issue that’s generated a substantial amount of discussion recently: Whether current advances in automation will create or replace jobs.

Pew, together with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, collected responses from 1,896 “targeted experts” to answer this question:
Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?
Respondents were also asked how disruptive advances in automation might be, economically and socially.
(I’ve addressed these questions myself a few times over the past year, first in a blog post pegged to the ambitions of a robot hamburger maker named Momentum Machines, and later in a two-part discussion/debate on O’Reilly Radar.)
Respondents to the Pew survey were almost equally divided between those who believe that by 2025 “robots and digital agents” will displace significant numbers of blue- and white-collar workers, and those who believe that by 2025 automation will not displace more jobs than it creates. The percentages were 48% in favor of the “will displace” option and 52% in favor of the “won’t displace” option, a split that says a lot about how clearly we’re able to foresee where our technologies are taking us. (Which doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of trying.)
The authors of Pew’s survey emphasize that these results should not be mistaken for a poll. It’s a non-random sample – they call it a “canvassing” – that represents only the views of those who answered the questions. What Pew doesn’t say is that not all of those expressing opinions seem to possess any genuine expertise on the subject at hand. Also not mentioned is the fact that not all of their answers make much sense.

I've read through the report so you don't have to. Here are some of the comments I found especially interesting, or annoying, in a variety of categories:  

Single smartest comment. John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, addressed the “will displace” or “won’t displace” options offered by Pew: “You didn’t allow the answer that I feel strongly is accurate," he said. "—too hard to predict.”
Bob Ubell, vice dean for online learning at New York University, made the same point. “The history of technological advances can go either way," he said. "In some economic transitions, technological innovation can spur economic growth, creating vast new industries, with large new worker populations; but in other periods, technological advances can have the opposite effect, causing older industries to shed millions of workers. It’s far too soon to tell.”

Hal Varian
Magical Thinking. For centuries technological enthusiasts have promised that our machines will free us from drudgery, giving us the time to do all the creative, wonderful things we’ve always wanted to do. Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, told Pew he believes that promise is closer than ever to being fulfilled

As it has in the past, Hal Varian says, technology will continue to eliminate "dull, repetitive, and unpleasant" jobs – he cites as examples the dishwasher, the clothes washer, and the vacuum cleaner – in the process producing a “more equitable distribution of labor and leisure time.”

What Varian fails to mention is that technology has also helped make other jobs more dull, repetitive, and unpleasant. Testimony on that score can be gleaned from generations of factory workers and, more recently, from customer service representatives in any number of industries, from retail to public utilities to health care. Varian also seems not to have noticed that in the digital era the distribution of labor and leisure has become anything but “more equitable.” Abundant evidence suggests that exactly the opposite is true. 

Tom Standage
This point was addressed in Pew's survey by Tom Standage, digital editor for The Economist. Previous technological revolutions unfolded more slowly than current advances in automation are expected to, he wrote, giving workers more time to adjust. We're already seeing growing numbers of people moving by necessity from higher-skilled jobs to lower-paying service sector jobs. The widening disparity in incomes these shifts are creating, Standage said, “is a recipe for instability.”

Another of Varian’s claims bears examination. We’re all working less now than we once did, he says. “The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is what has been going on for the last 300 years so I see no reason that it will stop in the decade.”

It’s possible that Varian has enough integrity to acknowledge, were more space available for elaboration, that experts in other fields would dispute those numbers; some have argued that members of so-called “primitive” societies worked only a few hours a day. Regardless of who you believe, I personally encounter very few people who say they’re less stressed today than they were ten years ago. Again, exactly the opposite is true.

Daren Brabham
A more credible comment on this issue, in my judgment (and I acknowledge my own bias on this score), came from Pew respondent Daren C. Brabham, assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California. “It is a long-standing sci-fi fantasy that someday our advances in automation/AI/robots will make human labor obsolete and allow us to live happier, healthier lives of leisure,” he said. “That has never proven to be true—we work harder and longer in the U.S. now than we ever have, despite technological advances.”

Sleight of Hand. Several respondents in Pew’s survey expressed a theory that is common in discussions of this sort, which is that automation won’t eliminate jobs, but will shift them to other industries. Specific examples aren't usually mentioned, but when they are, the new jobs often seem connected in some fashion to computer programming, mechanical engineering, artificial intelligence, or related fields. Similarly, when asked how we can avoid an unemployment crisis in the future, respondents often insist that education must more effectively train people for just those sorts of jobs.

The advice regarding educational priorities may be realistic, given that nothing seems likely to slow the ongoing capitulation of every aspect of contemporary culture to technique. As far as employment goes, however, few seem to notice that if the job opportunities are shifting toward various forms of automation, those who have well-paid jobs in the future are increasingly likely to be working to find ways to eliminate other people's jobs. 

The myopia of this view can be discerned in the comment of John Wooten, a consultant whose web site doesn’t make clear exactly who he works with, or for. Wooten is among those who don't believe automation will cause a higher rate of job displacement than job creation in the next decade. Current trends related to automation and business intelligence tools have surprisingly led to more job creation in the markets I have been involved with,” he says. “For example, cloud computing has actually brought greater business necessity for hiring more IT persons, not less, as the implementation of ‘cloud’ affords IT personnel the ability to perform functions more critical to the organization as a whole.” 

Why it would be surprising that current trends in automation and business intelligence tools would stimulate a demand for IT personnel, Wooten doesn’t say.

Amy Webb
Another of my favorite comments in this regard came from Amy Webb, CEO of the Webbmedia Group. “Now more than ever,” she said, “an army of talented coders is needed to help our technology advance.”

The Elephant in the Room.  Almost none of the nearly two thousand replies Pew received make any mention of what I consider the single most important question about our future, regarding not only jobs but our survival. I refer to climate change. If automation is going to be as significant a social and economic factor in the coming decades as many of these respondents believe it will be, then some mention of the ways in which it might impact global warming would seem to make sense. Not so in this discussion: a search for the word “climate” in the full report turned up no hits. 

Mike Roberts, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame and first president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, referred to climate change indirectly, in the context of labor and equitability. Electronic and human avatars, he said, will be competing for jobs within years, not decades. "The situation is exacerbated by the total failure of the electronics community to address to any serious degree sustainability issues that are destroying the modern 'consumerist' model and undermining the early 20th century notion of 'a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.' There is great pain down the road for everyone as new realities are addressed. The only question is how soon."  

Mike Roberts
When we're ready. Geoff Livingston is a marketing expert who, whether he knows it or not, shares the views of the social constructionists. “I see the movement towards AI and robotics as evolutionary, in large part because it is such a sociological leap,” he says. “The technology may be ready, but we are not—at least, not yet.”

I myself lean toward a determinist position (admittedly the minority view these days) and tend to believe that technologies will be introduced and adopted not so much when “we” are "ready" but when they're available and when it's to the advantage of a few individuals or groups to introduce them. We might be more ready to accept dishwashers and vacuum cleaners, for example, than we are robo calls and strip mining. Robo calls and strip mining are with us nonetheless. We also may think we're ready for a technology, only to realize, once it's become embedded in the culture, that we weren't as ready as we thought. Cars come to mind.

Larry Gell
Larry Gell, founder and director of the International Agency for Economic Development, discussed the readiness question in his response to Pew. “After 50+ years working for the heads of the world’s biggest corporations all over the globe,” he wrote, “—watching them cut costs every place starting with the biggest cost: PEOPLE; moving labor to cheapest markets, then replacing them as fast as possible with robots and automation—why would it stop? It will accelerate. Anything and everything that can be automated to replace humans will be done. You can bet on it!”

Technology isn’t destiny? Think again. The readiness question relates to a rather glib “point of agreement” that Pew’s authors say was expressed by partisans of both the “will displace” and “won’t displace” sides of the automation/jobs issue: “Technology is not destiny…we control the future we will inhabit.”

The authors elaborate: 
In the end, a number of these experts took pains to note that none of these potential outcomes—from the most utopian to most dystopian—are etched in stone. Although technological advancement often seems to take on a mind of its own, humans are in control of the political, social, and economic systems that will ultimately determine whether the coming wave of technological change has a positive or negative impact on jobs and employment.
Okay, it's hard to argue with that statement. Literally it's true that we can simply turn off our machines. Practically, though, it’s not that easy. If you think we’re in control of our technologies, try doing away with some of them and see what happens.

There’s no better example of this than the lack of meaningful response by governments, businesses, and individuals around the world to global warming. We know that unless we find ways to substantially lower emissions of greenhouse gases, warming trends already underway will produce, in the foreseeable future, climatic (and therefore economic and social) results that are nothing short of catastrophic. The scientific consensus on this is overwhelming, yet to date the nations of the world have failed to demonstrate a willingness to take anything close to adequate steps to address the problem. Why? Because we're so utterly committed to the technologies that are killing us that we're unable to bring ourselves to abandon them, or even to significantly moderate our use of them.

We’re stuck, in other words, unless we can find some sort of technological fix for the problem, a fix that in the process of saving the environment would almost certainly alter it in unforeseen ways.

So, despite the “point of agreement” of Pew’s respondents, technology is destiny, and we are not able to control the future we inhabit.* True, conceivably it is within our power to use automation techniques sensibly, taking into account the needs of working people to earn a living. But, as Larry Gell said, past experience tells us it is unlikely that we will do so, and it will become steadily less likely as businesses and economies invest in those techniques. The dynamics of technological momentum predict that investment becomes commitment. 

In short, we can't say for sure what will happen, but it will take a tremendous amount of political and social will to modify the directions in which our technologies are leading us. 

What I’m discussing in this section is the question of “technological autonomy.” I’ve written a number of blog posts on that subject. Examples can be found here, here, here, and here.

©Doug Hill, 2014

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