Futurelearning

Don’t trust economists about the future of work

Here’s a possible future. Machines will get better at doing our jobs. What is happening to bookkeepers and travel agents will happen to accountants, teachers and doctors. We will make despairing attempts to invent jobs to replace these. But any refuges from automation will be temporary.

As soon as the grandchildren of accountants, teachers and doctors demonstrate the economic value of what they do, they will generate powerful incentives to make machines that do that work more efficiently and cheaply. Immense wealth will go to the individuals and corporations who own the machines. The prospects for those without an ownership stake in the digital age economy will be bleak.

Let’s call this the pessimistic scenario.

Now an optimistic scenario. Machines will get better at doing our jobs. What is happening to bookkeepers and travel agents will happen to accountants, teachers and doctors. But these jobs will be replaced in ways that we cannot now imagine. Our grandchildren will do fabulous digital age jobs. They will pity us the soul-abnegating drudgery we call work.

So which is it? The optimistic scenario has recently received support from some prominent economists. MIT economist David Autor trusts in the ingenuity of our descendants to make themselves indispensable to digital age economies. He thinks those who today confidently predict the end of work, insult the creativity of future generations.

And anyway, the digital revolution is largely hype. An influential 2016 book by Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon grants that Google searches and YouTube are cool. But it insists a sober look at the statistics reveals that the digital revolution is much less economically significant than it seems to those overly impressed by their iPhones.

I think this optimism is mistaken for two reasons.

First, it overlooks what makes digital technologies different from earlier disruptive technologies. The handloom weavers of Industrial Revolution England may have lost out to steam-powered looms but they would have had little difficulty thinking of jobs not threatened by steam power. There was no prospect of steam-powered domestic servants or sailors.

Today, advances in machine learning seem to threaten almost any job that calls on human mental skills. Machine learners beat the best human players of the impressively demanding strategy game Go not because humans programmed them how to, but because they taught themselves. How quickly will it take tomorrow’s machine learners to acquire the knowledge we need decades of education to learn?

Second, it manifests a reckless attitude toward the uncertainties of the future. Psychologists have commented on a human optimism bias. With the exception of those suffering depression, we are inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, a fictional town described by Garrison Keillor in which “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”. It may be that this bias is what we as individuals need to confront our peers. But it’s often a mistake when we confront collective challenges.

My inner optimist hopes that climate change turns out to be nothing. Politicians who tell us climate change is a scam get votes. But the useful thing about collective pessimism is it shifts us away from the “she’ll be right” attitude New Zealanders take pride in. It inspires us to do something.

Yes, it’s possible a menacing Category 5 hurricane will take a left turn just before it hits our town and it’s possible the digital age will feature amazing jobs we can’t currently imagine. We can hope for the best, but nevertheless prepare for the worst.

Here, preparing for the worst consists in putting aside our need for good news about the future and thinking seriously about how to create jobs whose existence is not contingent on the current state of our technologies.

Nicholas Agar will be exploring the themes of this article further in ‘Don’t trust economists about the future of work’, his Victoria University of Wellington inaugural professorial public lecture, 6pm, Tuesday 19 September, Council Chamber, Hunter Building, Kelburn Parade. Register here or on 04-463 6770.

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