Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Thanks to robots, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary? Work!

I always watch out for the issues over which the Economist and the Wall Street Journal express concern.  The issues that we would not typically expect these pro-business newspapers to worry about.  Because, if they do, it means that the issue is for real, and urgent to those of us who are not all that rah-rah about business affairs.

Thus, when the Economist runs a special report on robots, and when in the lead article lies buried a concern, it is way past time to duck and cover!
As consumers and citizens, people will benefit greatly from the rise of the robots. Whether they will as workers is less clear, for the robots’ growing competence may make some human labour redundant.

In the introductory economic geography class that I teach, the last two years, I think, I have been providing reading materials that alert them about the real possibility that the jobs they are hoping for might not exist thanks to to the robots.  I tell them not to always imagine a physical robot and that a lot of work could simply be replaced by sophisticated software agents.  If what you do is routine day in and day out, it will be automated, I warn them.

But, of course, suffering from the Cassandra Curse means that I do not end up convincing anybody.  The story of my life!

And now, I can add to my list, this small little hedging by the Economist: "may make some human labour redundant."

Back in 1964, Isaac Asimov imagined 2014 in which robots will start making their presence felt:
Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.
Which is exactly where we are now: robots are not very good, nor are they common, but they are in existence.  The special report in the Economist includes examples of many such robots.

The subheading for one of the essays in the special report summarizes it all:
Job destruction by robots could outweigh creation
That idea of destruction outweighing job creation is, to some of us, quite an understatement!

So, forget the Economist; what else did Asimov imagine?
The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction. ...  It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter that will change. All the high-school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology will become proficient in binary arithmetic and will be trained to perfection in the use of the computer languages that will have developed out of those like the contemporary "Fortran" (from "formula translation").
 Too bad Asimov did not live long to see these unfold.
Even so, mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.
Yep. We have arrived at that very moment.  I have been routinely warning students for a few years now that a career that promises an affluent middle-class life might no longer be guaranteed.  There will be jobs at the lower end. And there will be lucrative opportunities for those who can do things that a software or hardware robot cannot--for which the key element is creativity.  Creativity not as in the fine arts alone, but creativity in a much larger sense.

So, what did Asimov think will be prized, valued?
Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!
Indeed!  You da man, Asimov!
Work without hopeBy Samuel Taylor Coleridge
All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

         Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.


Ramesh said...

Firstly compliments on attempting a verse in each of your post.

Don't share the extent of your pessimism. Yes, machines will replace human labour - they have been doing since our good ancestor came down from the trees. Efficiency and automation spurs economic activity, which in turn creates more jobs.

We have debated this in the past - the overall jobs numbers globally has increased, not decreased. The trouble why you are all so morose is that they are being created not in the West, but in India and China. That's a factor of how uneconomic the West has become and that is a different problem.

Yes the rate of growth in jobs might diminish; yes we might even face increasing structural unemployment, but we are a long way off (and I suspect never) where we will exist to serve machines.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, we have debated this before and yet again I have to remind you that my post was in the context of the US and other advanced economies. Boy are you always defensive about India and China!!! ;)

But, even in India and China, the ratio of # of jobs produced per $$ will decrease. And this will reduced rate of job creation even as economic conditions improve will be even more of a problem for India.

BTW, Asimov predicted an uneven world as well:
"Not all the world's population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively."

And, yes, following up on your suggestion, I am going to see how much I can weave in poetry into my posts this month ;)

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