Have you seen the movie “Her”? The 2013 Oscar nominee from Spike Jonze is a masterfully presented glimpse of a possible future in which our natural human thirst for connectedness is best met by having our own operating system (or OS) with whom to share our joys and sorrows. More than the central dialog, which comes across like two hours of someone else’s therapy, I enjoyed the backdrop: the cold, gray, lightly populated, urban landscape; the way in which people made their livings; and, the lifestyle of late 21st Century professionals.
Of late, a lot has been written about the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on society and the workforce. Pew Research recently summarized the results of canvassing of over 1800 experts. Half of their respondents were optimistic about the impact of automation and half were pessimistic.
The optimists suggest that technological advances have always displaced jobs but typically have been net creators of jobs. How? Well, we invent new kinds of work. For example, no one would have predicted that search engine optimization would be a major job category just a few short years ago.
The pessimists worry that the technology is advancing so rapidly that it will destroy more jobs than it creates in the next decade. Tom Standage, digital editor of The Economist, points out that previous disruptions provided a longer period of adjustment. He fears that the rate of change will “displace people into service roles, and the income gap between skilled workers whose jobs cannot be automated and everyone else will widen”.
Hasn’t this been happening for the last 40 years – or 300?
The introduction of Automated Teller Machines (ATM’s) in the 1960’s and 70’s threatened to put bank tellers out of work. Yet, there are over 800,000 people employed in banking in the U.S.
I recall using a calculator, a pencil and a thirteen-column spreadsheet to prepare my annual budget when I worked for a bank back then. I rejoiced at the invention of spreadsheet programs like Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel. They were supposed to put accountants and bookkeepers out of work. But they merely positioned accountants to do more value-added analytical work.
More recently, we’ve been adjusting to an automated world at the airport. We check in at kiosks or with our smartphones. We carry our own luggage. We buy tickets from websites.
Other examples of technology putting people out of work abound -- transcriptionists, letter carriers, factory workers, elevator operators, blacksmiths, the iceman. Oh, and whatever happened to those guys who used to light the oil burning streetlamps? Did they find other work after Edison flipped a switch?
In “Her”, the protagonist, Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix), is a writer. In the future digital world in which he lives, there is apparently a consumer demand for someone who is able to write heartfelt letters – love letters, apology letters, condolence letters, etc. One can imagine this becoming a real job category as we are constantly presented with college graduates whose powers of composition haven’t advanced beyond texting (or sexting).
However, the pessimists make a strong case of their own in the Pew study. Slightly more than half (52%) believes that near-term developments will expand job losses from blue collar to white-collar jobs. While certain, highly qualified individuals will be very successful in this new economic paradigm; others will be “displaced into low paying service jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst”.
This isn’t news. We can certainly see signs of this trend already.
Over the three centuries of the industrial revolution, our lifestyles have improved. We have added more value to the economic progress of society by virtue of the productivity afforded us by every technological advance from the steam engine, airplanes, radio and automatic dishwashers to computers, smartphones and iPads.
But, the pessimists make one very important observation. Our education system is not preparing us for the future that technology can afford us.
In Washington, the battle over disparity in incomes has liberal politicians arguing for increasing the minimum wage and transfer payments to the underprivileged. Meanwhile, conservatives argue for a more Darwinian libertarian system.
The fight for better education is left to local bureaucrats, the teachers’ unions and proponents of charter schools. The winners of that skirmish may determine our success as a society in very near future.
WHO WILL LEAD?