Planning for Our Own Obsolescence

We Are All Futurists Now, Part 4

This article is part four out of (probably) eight.

In the previous installments of this series, I sketched out some of the big new technological innovations that are likely to reshape the economy and bring us all into a science-fiction future. I discussed the “Third Industrial Revolution” which is merging the Internet with manufacturing, the rise of robotics, and the potential integration of this new technology with the human body and brain. In addition to all of these, I have previously discussed the ongoing economic revolution caused by the Internet and specifically how the Internet is primed to burst the higher-education bubble.

We’ve been seeing more confirmation of all of these trends. In May, the big international consulting firm McKinsey released a report naming 12 “disruptive” technologies. The list may seem a little familiar.

1. Mobile Internet
2. Automation of Knowledge Work
3. The Internet of Things
4. Cloud Technology
5. Advanced Robotics
6. Autonomous and Near-Autonomous Vehicles
7. Next-Generation Genomics
8. Energy Storage
9. 3-D Printing
10. Advanced Materials
11. Advanced Oil and Gas Exploration and Recovery
12. Renewable Energy

Half of these are things I’ve already written about, one is bogus (“renewable energy”), and the rest are things I’m going to be writing about in future installments of this series. I find it amusing that a high-stepping consulting firm writes a report to show off the superior expertise for which they get paid large sums of money, and they come up with pretty much the same list I came up with out here all on my own. Let’s just say that the direction new technology is taking us is not exactly a mystery. There is too much going on, too many real and useful innovations, for an astute observer to miss the implications.

If you’re skeptical about whether we’re going to get there, check out a report on an international science fair for teens, which features a 19-year-old from Romania working on a system for self-driving cars and an 18-year-old from California working with micro-supercapacitors (a promising breakthrough in energy storage). So a lot of young minds from across the world are working on these problems, and we can expect all obstacles to be beaten down one way or another. That’s why my advice is to be skeptical and demand proof about the effectiveness of any one specific invention. There are a lot of hucksters out there, and there will be a lot of false starts. But don’t doubt the overall direction of the new technology.

The big controversy is not whether the new technology is coming, but what its effect will be on the economy. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been conditioned by three decades of science-fiction hysteria, but the highest degree of hand-wringing seems to be reserved for the rise of the robots.

Here is the argument in its crudest, most simplistically Keynesian form.

“[A]s jobs and incomes are relentlessly automated away, the bulk of consumers will lack the income necessary to drive the demand that is critical to economic growth….

“This point here is that a worker is also a consumer (and may support other consumers). These people drive final demand. When a worker is replaced by a machine, that machine does not go out and consume. The machine may use energy, resources and spare parts, but again, those are business inputs—not final demand. If there is no one to buy what the machine is producing, it will get shut down. Think of an industrial robot being used by an auto manufacturer. The robot will not continue running if no one is buying cars.”

The supposed solution is precisely what you expected it would be: “In the long run, I think there will be no alternative except to implement direct redistribution of income.” Translation: How can I be expected to figure out how to find productive work when the economy, you know, changes? So instead you should just pay me for existing.

Most arguments about the supposedly ominous impact of robotics and the other new technologies are a little more sophisticated than this, and the sophisticated ones all seem to end up referring back to MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee and their 2011 book Race Against the Machine.

A recent long profile in MIT Technology Review summarizes their argument for how the new technology is taking away all of our jobs.

“Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his collaborator and coauthor Andrew McAfee have been arguing for the last year and a half that impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. Even more ominous for workers, the MIT academics foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as these powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.

“That robots, automation, and software can replace people might seem obvious to anyone who’s worked in automotive manufacturing or as a travel agent. But Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s claim is more troubling and controversial. They believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States. And, they suspect, something similar is happening in other technologically advanced countries….

“Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before…. ‘It’s the great paradox of our era,’ he says. ‘Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.'”

They date this “great decoupling” between productivity growth and wage and job growth to about 2000. This was also a period in which government spending and regulation began its latest big splurge. So you can see a strong ulterior motive to argue, as the Washington Post‘s Harold Myerson does, that “the private sector no longer creates jobs and prosperity like it used to, completely apart from whatever effects governmental policy may have on job creation.” Uh-huh. It’s a great way to set up computers and robots to take the blame for the economic consequences of the regulatory and welfare state.

So instead of being attributed to the long-term impact of the entitlement state, stagnation is attributed to the long-term impact of mechanization.

“In the early nineteenth century, David Ricardo considered the possibility that machines would replace labor; Karl Marx followed him. Around the same time, the Luddites smashed the textile machinery that they saw as taking their jobs.

“Then the fear of machines died away. New jobs—at higher wages, in easier conditions, and for more people—were soon created and readily found. But that does not mean that the initial fear was wrong. On the contrary, it must be right in the very long run: sooner or later, we will run out of jobs.”

Notice how the past 10 to 15 years count as the “very long run”—but the 200 years prior to that, going back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, somehow don’t count as the “long run.” But of course they do, in fact, constitute the long run, and over those two centuries, the economic consequences of technological progress have been very well established. The MIT profile on Brynjolfsson offers some recognition of this fact.

“At least since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, improvements in technology have changed the nature of work and destroyed some types of jobs in the process. In 1900, 41 percent of Americans worked in agriculture; by 2000, it was only 2 percent. Likewise, the proportion of Americans employed in manufacturing has dropped from 30 percent in the post–World War II years to around 10 percent today—partly because of increasing automation, especially during the 1980s.

“While such changes can be painful for workers whose skills no longer match the needs of employers, Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, says that no historical pattern shows these shifts leading to a net decrease in jobs over an extended period.”

This is the understatement of the century, or of two centuries. The result of technological innovation isn’t just steady employment, but a vastly expanded range of opportunities for jobs with much higher productivity and thus much higher pay, in an economy where your money buys a lot more.

So why do the old myths about mechanization persist?

The neo-Luddites are responding to a real phenomenon, but one whose significance they completely misinterpret.

It is certainly true that many existing kinds of jobs will disappear, as has happened in previous periods of technological progress. This has already been happening for decades with manufacturing jobs, and it is accelerating. The only difference is that new and different classes of jobs are being made obsolete.

Increasing automation in factories, for example, has still left room for a lot of jobs that are described as “machine tending,” i.e., monitoring the operation of machines and making small adjustments or bringing in new supplies. But now those jobs are about to be automated out of existence.

“To understand how this plays out in the real world, it’s worth reading economics journalist Adam Davidson’s account of the lives of two factory workers at a highly automated car parts factory in Greenville, South Carolina. One, ‘Maddie,’ is an unskilled laborer, or a ‘Level 1,’ whose job it is to place parts into a machine that performs a particular operation on them without any adjustment from a human. The other, Luke Hutchins, got a two-year degree at vocational school, and can operate machines that require a great deal of experience and mathematical acumen, including calculus.

“Luke earns 50% more than Maddie, but here’s the really important detail: Maddie’s job, like that of all Level 1′s, is ‘machine tending.’ She merely enables a machine to work. In a few months, says Rodney Brooks, founder of Rethink Robotics, his Baxter robot will get an updated version of its software that will allow it to do machine tending.”

And it’s not just happening in “rich countries.” The “developing” nations whose low-cost labor has taken over old-fashioned unskilled factory work are now finding that even they can no longer outcompete the robots.

“Last September, India’s biggest carmaker, Maruti Suzuki, announced a new factory in the state of Gujarat, with plans for an installed capacity of 250,000 cars per year. Chairman Osamu Suzuki agreed to the plant only after he got the state government to agree that he would install 800 robots on the pressing and welding floors, meaning 95 per cent of the car-building work would be automated—and free from labor issues.

“Likewise, Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that does contract manufacturing for Apple and Nokia, is installing a million robots in its facilities on the mainland. Its current staff strength on the mainland: about one million.

“Already, some 25 million fewer Chinese are working in manufacturing than a decade ago. The euro zone has shed 7.6 million manufacturing jobs and the US, 3.75 million.”

All of which is actually good news for the developing nations because it means that they are, well, developing: they will start losing unskilled jobs in favor of skilled jobs. But none of this is particularly new. Let’s go back to the original Luddites and the power looms they were so worried about. Between the Cartwright loom of 1785 and the Lancashire loom of 1842 (the first automatic power loom), a single worker went from supervising one machine to supervising six machines operating at twice the speed—a twelve-fold increase in his productivity.

But part of what I have been warning about is that the bar for what is a “skilled” job has been rising. The flip side of work that has higher productivity in terms of output is that it generally requires more productivity on the part of the worker—not necessarily working longer or harder, but contributing more thought, experience, or knowledge. Any work that doesn’t require such a higher level of skill is subject to being automated.

This is already affecting a lot of the jobs we were told to move into as an alternative to the old manufacturing jobs. The “service” industry is the next to go. The next job for Baxter, the easily programmable robot mentioned in this link and in one of the articles above, may be as the barista making your cappuccino at the Starbucks of the future.

The rise of service robots will be aided by researchers who are studying how people interact with robots and figuring out how to design machines that will better understand our instructions about what to do.

And then of course there are robot surgeons.

All of this is what led me to warn that “We Are all Expendable Now,” because jobs that we used to think could never, ever be automated are increasingly being done by robots or computers.

So does that mean that new technologies really will eliminate jobs? Of course they will. All economic progress eliminates jobs. That is its purpose. You might even say this is its definition: economic progress is the elimination of jobs.

A proper definition of economic progress begins with the recognition that human labor is the single most precious and limited resource, and the goal of human life is to conserve this resource, doing more with less of it. So the whole purpose of economic progress is to reduce the number of tasks that have to be performed by human labor, and to start by eliminating the tasks that are least productive.

As an individual, you might outsource these tasks to another person—hiring a maid, for example. As a society, you might outsource them to another country—sending manufacturing to China, for example. As a species, we outsource these jobs to machines.

So of course we are constantly eliminating old jobs from the economy. A society in which everyone does exactly the same work in exactly the same proportions as they did 100 years ago, or 25 years ago, or even ten years ago, would be a society paralyzed by stagnation.

A society that is constantly using technological progress to eliminate jobs is the very definition of a vibrant and growing economy, which is precisely the kind of economy that is constantly generating new economic opportunities. A society that retains the same jobs decade after decade is the definition of a moribund, stagnant, and impoverished economy in which no one has any opportunity to advance.

Which is exactly the opposite of the story the neo-Luddites are telling us.

There is a lot of talk about how the new robot economy will require reform of our education system. I agree, but I think reform ought to start at the top, because today’s neo-Luddism is coming from guys with Ph.D.s at institutions like MIT, who despite all their learning (or perhaps because of it) are just repeating the same old ideas that were disproven centuries ago. They are looking at all of the same facts I’m looking at, but they can’t interpret them because they don’t even know what economic progress is.

Andrew McAfee tells MIT Technology Review, “I would like to be wrong, but when all these science-fiction technologies are deployed, what will we need all the people for?” It’s like going back to 1813 and seeing one of the old Luddites staring uncomprehendingly at a power loom and asking: once these things come into the factories, what are we going to weave by hand? Well, you’re not going to weave anything by hand. But there are going to be all sorts of new jobs you know nothing about and whose existence you can’t even imagine yet.

The best answer to this sort of question was given by a pro-technology writer —there are a few of us out here—who explains:

“One argument says that this time is different because soon robots will be able to do everything a human does. But it’s misguided to assume we can forecast what humans ‘will do.’ What that statement really means is, ‘In the future, robots will do everything humans do today.’ But what exactly it is that humans will do in the future is anyone’s guess—and few, if any, have ever successfully predicted it.

“Before the 20th century, most folks in the West farmed. Now, thanks to massive productivity gains in agriculture, virtually none do. To a 19th century farmer that would imply nothing less than the collapse of the economy. Why? Because the thing most people did back then was farm. Our farmer might understandably wonder, ‘What will we do when machines perform our jobs for us? How will we make money? How will we survive?'”

The answer is that old jobs disappear, and people adapt by doing different jobs. That always includes many new jobs that arise because of the new technology. But the agriculture analogy is instructive. Not only do few people work in agriculture today, but relatively few even work in businesses that support agriculture. It’s not like we’ve all moved from working on the farm to building tractors for John Deere. Instead, most of the new jobs provide goods and services that didn’t exist at all until relatively recently when someone invented them.

The point of all of this is that, instead of complaining about the disappearance of the jobs people do today, we should be considering all of the opportunities that are opening up for the jobs we will do in the future.

In anti-capitalist ideology, one of the omnipotent powers attributed to Big Business is “planned obsolescence,” in which businesses prosper by continually selling us new and improved version of their product—the iPhone 3, then the iPhone 4, the 4S, then the iPhone 5—always tempting us with the need to buy the latest and best thing which supersedes what came before.

This is not, of course, any great conspiracy. It is the very nature of technological progress, where new innovations become practical a bit at time for the benefit of enthusiastic “early adopters.” But here’s the point: if corporations can make money from products that keep becoming obsolete, to be replaced by something new and better—why can’t we do the same thing with ourselves?

If our existing jobs are going to become obsolete—as they should, in a society shaped by economic progress—than shouldn’t we be planning for our own obsolescence?

So what are the possibilities of the new robot economy? What work will become obsolete, and what is likely to replace it?

If we are all going to end up serving our new robot masters, then the first, most obvious response is to become one of the robot masters.

Remember the story about the power loom and how it increased a worker’s productivity? Back then, workers increased their productivity because they went from managing one power loom to managing six. How about one worker overseeing a whole team of robots, or managing an entire factory? Or designing the robots?

Becoming one of the robot master can mean becoming an engineer or going to Code Academy and learning how to program the software that runs the new robot economy. But it can also mean a whole constellation of jobs designing, marketing, servicing, and managing robots—and finding new uses for them.

It’s important to remember that we are still very early in the rise of robotics. Rodney Brooks, the man behind the “Baxter” robot, describes what inspired his invention.

“I became concerned about the lack of innovation in industrial robotics after spending time in Shenzhen, China, as we set up the production line for the Roomba vacuum cleaner. I saw people building a million robots a year and doing it by hand. This isn’t unusual in electronics manufacturing. Consider that the iPad is touched by 325 pairs of hands during assembly. That means that, despite growing interest and anxiety about automation and robotics taking away manufacturing jobs, most of our stuff—the low-cost consumer items that we buy from Wal-Mart—is still made by hand.”

Building robots by hand. Now there is an image that sums up where we are.

That means that there are still many thousands of uses for computers, the Internet, and robotics that are still left to be discovered, which is another way of saying that there are thousands of new business opportunities.

For example, online retailing may seem ubiquitous, yet its revolutionary potential has only barely been realized. The point of cutting out brick-and-mortar stores was to cut out many expensive layers of middlemen between the manufacturer and the consumer. But there are still plenty of middlemen left, and a lot of money gets eaten up between the time a sweatshirt leaves the factory in China and when it arrives at Old Navy.

Slate’s technology writer Farhad Manjoo, in an ode to the manufacturer of the “world’s greatest hoodie,” notes how the retail business still largely works.

“Today, when you buy a hooded sweatshirt, most of your money is going to the retailer, the brand, and the various buyers that shuttle the garment between the two. The item itself costs very little to make—a $50 hoodie at the Gap likely costs about $6 or $7 to produce at an Asian manufacturing facility.”

By contrast:

“American Giant doesn’t maintain a storefront, and it doesn’t deal with middlemen. By selling garments directly from its factory via the Web, American Giant can avoid the distribution costs baked into most other clothes…. There is really no comparison between American Giant’s hoodie and the competition. It looks better and feels substantially more durable—Winthrop says it will last a lifetime. When you wear this hoodie, you’ll wonder why all other clothes aren’t made this well.”

In other words, more money is going into making a premium product, because less has to go into the distribution network of wholesalers, marketers, and retailers.

The savings also allow the company to manufacture its product in the US—something that will also be made possible by robotics.

I mentioned above about how robotics is already coming to manufacturers in China and India. It will also help manufacturing return to the US. The advantage that nations like China have, in terms of the availability of cheap labor, is already eroding. As developing nations become more prosperous, labor costs rise. Add that to the other significant costs of manufacturing overseas, from shipping costs to political instability and official corruption, and you can see how robotics—which further reduces the competitive advantage of cheap, unskilled labor—can bring manufacturing, and many related economic opportunities, back to the US.

And then there is the fact that the very thing everyone is complaining about, the loss of jobs, is a huge economic benefit when looked at from the other side. The “one lesson” of Henry Hazlett’s Economics in One Lesson was to look, not at the immediate effect of some policy or action on one specific group, but also to consider its long-term effect on everyone. Yet that is precisely the error of the neo-Luddites. They present every technological innovation in terms of the loss it will create for one person in one particular area—the worker whose specific jobs is automated out of existence—while glossing over the benefits this creates for everyone else: the jobs created in other fields, the extra work that will be done by a more productive machine, and the money saved by the consumers of the goods and services provided by machines. For every particular job made obsolete by robots, there is a cascade of economic benefits that outweighs that loss (which, in turn, will create new employment prospects for the displaced worker).

The Wall Street Journal‘s Holman Jenkins, for example, speculates that robotics might even save us from the looming crisis of the entitlement state. He starts with the impact of the driverless car, which will be essential to provide mobility to aging Baby Boomers, who would otherwise require human drivers as they lose their eyesight and reflexes.

“Or take another example, arising in Baltimore, where a local entrepreneur, following the logic of need, invested seven years and $30 million developing a robotic system for packaging prescription drugs for long-term patients in nursing homes and hospitals….

“He saw workers spending hours under the old system sticking pills in monthly blister packs known as ‘bingo cards,’ a process expensive and error-prone. He saw nurses on the receiving end then spending time to pluck the pills out of blister packs and into paper cups, to create the proper daily drug regimen for each patient….

“Backed by his company, Remedi SeniorCare, Paxit—in which a robot packages, labels and dispatches a daily round of medicines for each patient—is spreading across the mid-Atlantic and Midwest and winning plaudits from medical-care providers.

“Writ small here is an answer to our entitlement morass, when more of us will be living off our savings (or transfers) and fewer of us will be contributing our labor to society.”

Similarly, if you want to look only at the negative, you can point out that because of new technology, start-up companies are hiring fewer people than they did before. But then you could also look at the wider effect and realize that this will make it possible for entrepreneurs to create more start-ups which will become more profitable sooner because they have to cover fewer costs. Thus:

“When Mike Farmer started a digital search company in 2004, he had a staff of 10.

“Today, in his third start-up, he has one employee: himself, aided by seven contractors working more or less part time. His budget, like his head count, is smaller, and by his account the new model is much more sustainable.”

Another observer notes an increase in the “million dollar one-person business.” This is just another way of describing the same phenomenon—the lower number of employees for start-ups—but in a way that highlights its benefits.

Rather than heralding the end of employment, the rise of computers and robotics will herald the next great age of entrepreneurship, where it will become even easier to start a business out of a spare bedroom—and to keep running it there—with less capital than would have been required in a previous generation. I know all about this new economy, because I haven’t worked in an “office” for 20 years. In recent years, thanks to cell phones and wireless Internet, I find that I don’t even need a home office. Instead, I carry my office with me. It weighs about three pounds, has a snazzy brushed-aluminum exterior with a lighted plastic profile of an apple on it, and I carry it around in a beat-up old black nylon shoulder bag. That’s “the office” and “the staff.” It’s also “the payroll,” which is the whole point.

My own example, by the way, indicates that the new technology doesn’t just open up new opportunities in the field of technology itself. You don’t have to be designing and building robots to profit from robotics, just as you don’t have to design and build computers to benefit from them.

In fact, the hysteria over the rise of robotics ignores the fact that there are and always have been enormous opportunities for non-automated work.

To begin with, there are always quirky little jobs that require manual work or problem-solving, but for which a technological solution is not economical. Humans are still the universal machine, able to adapt more quickly and with greater agility than any robot that is likely to be made any time soon, so we will always be needed to fill in the gaps that machines can’t cover. And given the chaotic way in which innovative new systems always tend to grow, there will always be unanticipated gaps that need human intervention to fix them. While some of these gaps may not seem inherently productive, consisting of manual labor or data entry, they will still be economically productive because they arise within systems that are enormously productive. If you’re the human being needed to occasionally twist a bolt to adjust the connection between two vast banks of machines, it doesn’t matter that all you do is twist a bolt; the productivity of a whole factory depends on you. So there will always be productive jobs for humans to fill the gaps within an automated system, and the productivity of that work rises with the productivity of the system.

And of course, there will always be demand for real people and hand-crafted goods that are valuable precisely because they involve real people instead of machines. As I write, there is an ad playing on the television in which a credit card company boasts that you can call their help line and reach a real human being, because that is what many customers prefer. Similarly, there is a well-demonstrated historical process by which, say, a skilled carpenter who builds furniture one piece at a time in his backyard shop, goes from being a lower-class tradesman to being unemployed a generation or two later, and then a few generations after that returns as an upper-middle-class “artisan,” or even a wealthy entrepreneur who sells desks for $3,000 apeice.

But working in the new economy will be different in one big respect: it will be more entrepreneurial. You may have noticed that in discussing the economic impact of the new technology, I made a subtle shift from talking about “jobs” to talking about “economic opportunities.” Increasingly, opportunity won’t come in the form of a job listing in the newspaper. (Do those even exist any more?) It will come in the form of an entrepreneurial opportunity—a task that needs to be done or a business that can fill a gap.

A good example, both of an entrepreneurial start-up and of the kind of work we will all be doing, is a company called TaskRabbit, an “online marketplace for odd jobs.” Or what we used to call a temp agency.

“The company started as a way for people to hire neighbors to do their errands; the idea was sparked when its founder couldn’t find the time to pick up food for her dog. But businesses looking for inexpensive, commitment-free labor now make up the fastest-growing part of TaskRabbit’s platform. Earlier this year the company launched a service for businesses, and it says 16,000 of them have signed up since February, with the vast majority actually finding workers through the site. TaskRabbit announced on Thursday a significant expansion of its program. It’s now offering to help customers file tax forms, handle time sheets, and take care of other administrative tasks.

“By moving from errands to real work, TaskRabbit is betting on a future where employment will seem much more like a series of small-scale agreements between businesses and labor than jobs in the traditional sense.”

Or as the fellow with one-man startup profiled above puts it:

“I think we’re all headed toward an agent economy, where everyone becomes an agent or a service provider instead of an employee at some big corporation. That’s just how the world is evolving. It’s like telecommuting, but it’s taken to the level of telecompanies.”

There is one other possible implication of the new robot economy: that we will, in fact, work less—but in a good way.

After all, isn’t this the whole purpose of mechanization and automation: for humans to do less work? And this is precisely what we see as one of the manifestations of economic and technological progress.

“It hardly seems worth arguing that most Americans would work less per week and for less of their lifetimes if they could. One hundred years ago essentially all men in their early 60s worked; today just six in ten do, and the typical retirement age has steadily declined (while life expectancy has increased). During their working years, men now have more leisure time than in the past. Work has increased markedly for women, but consistent with their rising education levels, longer delays in marriage and childbearing, and reduced fertility, this is mainly reflective of greater opportunities to balance work and family. Unpaid time doing housework has declined more among women than work has increased, meaning that they too have more leisure time than in the past.”

All of this even leads Ross Douthat to contemplate a “world without work.” That’s not just because of the welfare state. It’s also because a wealthy society can afford to support more people who are not economically productive—children and spouses, for example—and can allow those workers who are productive to spend more of their lives on things other than work, whether by taking long weekends or retiring early.

But the future is not all about easy days spent in the hammock while the machines do all the work. The trade-off for having to do less work, or less strenuous work, is the requirement to be more entrepreneurial, and this is where we get to the heart of the neo-Luddite complaints. There is more than a whiff to them of what I call “Allentown Syndrome” after the Billy Joel song written from the perspective of a steel mill worker in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who describes his disappointment that the middle class factory jobs his parents and grandparents worked at are disappearing.

That seems to be the main complaint of the neo-Luddites: that it will no longer be possible to learn a small set of simple skills and get 40 years of steady, middle-class work at a big established company.

The extent to which that was ever possible is a bit of an illusion. After all, many of those parents and grandparents were the first ones in their families to work an industrial factory job, and many of them lamented that they couldn’t stay back on the farm like their parents and grandparents. A growing, dynamic economy is always displacing workers and makes no guarantees to anyone.

But the rise of robotics raises the bar higher. As an increasing range of physical tasks can be automated, as can an increasing range of mental tasks involving perceptual-level skills of memory and pattern-recognition, workers will increasingly find it is necessary to make a living from higher-level thinking skills—both for the work itself, and for the task of figuring out what skills to acquire and what opportunities to pursue.

This new economy will make possible a much higher level of productivity as each worker effectively commands an army of robots. But it will also create a greater need for workers to rely on higher-level thinking.

Anything else is becoming obsolete. Plan on it.

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One Response to Planning for Our Own Obsolescence

  1. Matt B. July 8, 2013 at 4:37 PM #

    Problem is that thing called “political economy”.

    The Luddites and the populists are very much alive and well in this nation, which about 3-4% at most are entrepreneurial. For most “hard working Americans”, the hardest part of their “job” is getting up in the morning after watching TV until midnight.