Sunday, October 21, 2012

Your iPhone Will Take Your Job

“Maybe not today…  maybe not tomorrow…  but soon and for the rest of your life…”*
Technology -- driven by customer interaction or some algorithm much smarter than we are – is taking our jobs.  It’s been going on for decades.  We gladly did the work of a bank teller in exchange for 24/7 access to an ATM beginning in the 1970’s.  No more standing in line to cash our paychecks.   More recently, we quickly adopted the convenience of using a kiosk rather than dealing with an airline employee to get our boarding passes or better yet printed them at home. 

In economic theory, capital investment creates jobs.  Yet, technology investment is booming and employment languishes. 

Ken Jennings, who famously won over $2 Million on Jeopardy, was soundly whipped by an IBM computer dubbed Watson on that same game show.  Combine Watson with the Siri app on your iPhone and guess what happens next.  Your doctor’s job is in jeopardy.

If you think the technology is too rudimentary, consider this.  Visionaries like MIT’s Andrew McAfee point out that Moore’s Law correctly predicted that computing power would double every 18 months way back in the 1960’s.  And Moore was right.  Now, apply that theory to Siri and Watson.  If I ask my doctor about a particular drug, he looks it up on his iPhone.  It’s a short hop to the iPhone looking it up and giving me clinical advice.

In the 20th Century, science assumed an important role in society.  Great inventions  were born at institutions like Bell Labs or MIT.  Today, the Internet has taken the process of innovation global.  This democratization portends great progress – both economic and social.  McAfee suggest we will “live more lightly on the planet” and “eradicate poverty”.

Yet, I am not so easily convinced that the progress of innovation will mean progress for everyone.  America, the land of opportunity, has been sliding backwards in terms of upward mobility.  The OECD’s latestreport on economic mobility rates the U.S. poorly on that score.

Germaine Smith-Baugh
How will great technological progress provide for the poor uneducated masses in the developing world and in our own inner cities?  A good friend, Germaine Smith-Baugh, is CEO of the Urban League of Broward County.   Their mission?  “To assist African-Americans and other disenfranchised groups in the achievement of social and economic equality.”

I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.  Yet, Germaine and her underfunded organization soldier on undeterred.  I asked her how she goes about making a difference.  “I start with a family,” she says.  “If I can get a family, I can get a block.  If I can get a block, I can get a neighborhood.  If I can get a neighborhood, I can get a community.”  And so on.

But the problems of income inequality are much bigger than the Urban League and its like across the U.S. can solve.  For all to thrive, for the middle class to remain a stable economic and social force in this country, we need to address the structural impediments to the solutions. 

Those solutions lie in the need for massive investments in education and infrastructure.  Conservatives eschew such investments by government in favor of free market solutions.  Liberals misallocate funds to projects that focus on social outcomes rather than economic ones. 

A college degree is so expensive to obtain that many people are beginning to doubt there is a financial return.  And colleges themselves seem stuck on providing a great 20th Century education.  For this country to thrive in the 21st, our education system must be revamped to train more engineers, moreentrepreneurs and more technicians. 

Budget cutting fervor has reduced aid through Pell Grants and student loan interest rates have skyrocketed because, in the absence of government guarantees, bankers will not loan money to poor students whose prospects are not certain.   If we are to produce a better educated workforce, we must identify the skills and knowledge valued by enterprise.  If government were to work hand and hand with industry to provide graduates with the skills that are in demand, the landscape would change.

Government spending on infrastructure is funneled to unproductive projects by politicians who want to make sure that their district gets a share of the pork that’s being doled out.  If we were to focus our infrastructure investments on the large urban centers that produce a return, we must overcome a political battle over how funds are allocated. 

For sure, non-profits like the Urban League must play a role in bolstering a sense of family and community among our nation’s poor.  However, our dysfunctional government structure and its sour relations with corporate America must be resolved before we can make substantial progress on behalf of the middle class and those less fortunate.


*One of my favorite lines from the movie Casablanca.


  1. The threat of technology taking jobs goes much further back than a couple of decades. In fact, writings from the industrial revolution suggest that fear of machines taking over our vocations has existed for centuries.
    Still, your point about education is relevant. We hear much rhetoric about STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) but our public universities provide much more opportunity for studies in education and health care than in science and engineering. Further, our secondary school system does a poor job of making these fields interesting to young people as career opportunities.
    With high technology comes the need for technical training. We fall short in providing access to that training and we've created a generation more interested in playing video games than inventing them.

  2. Great comment, Chris. One difference between then and now... 200 years ago, there was an unmet demand for labor. What drove innovation was the need to farm all that land when there weren't enough folks (including slaves) to farm it. Today, innovation is driven be competition to be the most efficient, low cost provider of products and services. The languishing labor market -- high unemployment and lower incomes -- is the result of excess labor.

  3. Ken Mayeaux • IMHO, the Federal Government needs to push down responsibility to the State Governments, who need to push down responsibility to the Local Governments who need to enlist the private sector ....... the stranglehold on this country by the Federal Government has to be broken, and this is why our country is broken.

    Gerald R. Ford, who said, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have," in an address to a joint session of Congress on August 12, 1974.

    It may not take it away directly, but indirectly we are losing more and more liberties each year ........ the bottom line is that Government is too big to identify and serve the needs of “we the people”, it is too busy serving its own needs.

    Who Will Allow Others To Lead ....... at the local levels?

  4. Carl Cleveland • It seems to me that the worst part of our culture of government responsibility is that we have seriously deteriorated any sense of personal responsibility whether for recovery from natural disasters, consequences of ups and downs in business and economy, a criminal act or even our own poor choices. Whenever anything bad happens, way too many people immediately point a finger at some government agency. If we want a stronger society, we need to hold people responsible for their own choices.

  5. Carrie Smith • Right Carl....but don't government agencies help contribute to not being personally accountable? When a single mother has another child; she is rewarded with more money (with no accountability), food-stamps, "free" health-care, "free" rent, many times a cell phone, etc. What's keeping her from thinking twice about having another is after all, more money! (can give you many examples of true cases like this, I ave experienced first-hand)
    When govt. insurance will cover you for flood damage (while private ins won't) for a house built on the water and "reward" you when the house is many cases, you can just build another.....again right on the water......what keeps the owner from being accountable? Until Americans are allowed to suffer the consequences from their choices and as long as "free" government money supports poor choices, there will be no accountability. By trying to "be kind" and protect everyone, our government has created spoiled children. The children aren't going to behave until the government says no more handouts for personal mistakes. Some will suffer, but that is a part of a free society.

  6. Ray Wach • Well said, Carrie, but it will be hard to correct. Too many of us want our government to nanny them, and our government officials are rewarded when they act like nannies, with more influence, more authority, more compliments. It's a self-perpetuating spiral. And as Ken said, the Federal Government is sucking up as much of the influence as it can.

    We think that we are helping people by giving them money. But we all know that if my no-account brother-in-law wants me to loan him money I would not be helping him if I do. We don't see government assistance the same way, but we should.

  7. James (Jim) Conn • You are correct Carrie, but remember that if the government doesn't try to "be kind" and protect everyone, some people might not be happy and the government folks might not get re-elected. Since that is job one for them, they will continue to fight the symptoms of the disease rather than the underlying cause. The patient will be more comfortable but is still dying. We will see tomorrow how many folks get elected who are willing to speak unpopular truths.

  8. Carrie Smith • Correct Jim.......unfortunately way too many Americans can't see the truth through the fog of "what's in it for me". And if we continue this vicious circle, America loses. That is why we need politicians of moral character and strength to do what is right rather than what seems popular at the time, I am thinking of our current President's words (4 years ago).."it is unpatriotic to pass the burden of debt onto our children"......all rhetoric, just to get elected. I guess the patient felt better hearing that, but is now close to dying! We'll see how many Americans realize tomorrow we can't vote for false promises anymore.

  9. James (Jim) Conn • Carrie - Exactly right. Moral courage and integrity are things we were taught once upon a time and seem to be missing by and large from this campaign. I appreciate Colin Powell's comments while endorsing President Obama last week. His words do not please everyone but seem to be much closer to the mark than the candidates or their surrogates. I really hate it when the voting comes down to the lesser of bad choices.