Businesses Moving Too Quickly?

Are businesses are moving too quickly to robots? Is any job safe?

Patrick Thibodeau at Computer World discusses the idea things are moving “too fast” with a review of Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, Automation and Us.

Please consider Automation Could Take Your Skills — and Your Job by Patrick Thibodeau.

The Glass Cage examines the possibility that businesses are moving too quickly to automate white collar jobs, sophisticated tasks and mental work, and are increasingly reliant on automated decision-making and predictive analytics. It warns of the potential de-skilling of the workforce, including software developers, as larger shares of work processes are turned over to machines.

This book is not a defense of Luddites. It’s a well-anchored examination of the consequences and impact about deploying systems designed to replace us.

Interview with Carr

Thibodeau posted a lengthy set of interview questions in regards to the book, along with answers from Carr.

Here are a few snips (emphasis added).

CW: What is the worry here? If I can get into my self-driving car in the morning, I can sit back and work on other things.

Carr: There are two worries. One is practical and the other is philosophical. We have to figure out how to best balance the responsibilities between the human expert or professional and computer. I think we’re going down the wrong path right now. We’re too quick to hand over too much responsibility to the computer and what that ends up doing is leaving the expert or professional in a kind of a passive role: looking at monitors, following templates, entering data. The problem, and we see it with pilots and doctors, is when the computer fails, when either the technology breaks down, or the computer comes up against some situation that it hasn’t been programmed to handle, then the human being has to jump back in take control, and too often we have allowed the human expert skills to get rusty and their situational awareness to fade away and so they make mistakes. At the practical level, we can be smarter and wiser about how we go about automating and make sure that we keep the human engaged.

Then we have the philosophical side, what are human beings for? What gives meaning to our lives and fulfills us? And it turns out that it is usually doing hard work in the real world, grappling with hard challenges, overcoming them, expanding our talents, engaging with difficult situations. Unfortunately, that is the kind of effort that software programmers, for good reasons of their own, seek to alleviate today.  

CW: Gartner recently came out with a prediction that in approximately 10 years about one third of all the jobs that exist today will be replaced by some form of automation. That could be an over-the-top prediction or not. But when you think about the job market going forward, what kind of impact do you see automation having?

Carr: I think that prediction is probably over aggressive. It’s very easy to come up with these scenarios that show massive job losses. I think what we’re facing is probably a more modest, but still ongoing destruction or loss of white collar professional jobs as computers become more capable of undertaking analyses and making judgments. A very good example is in the legal field, where you have seen, and very, very quickly, language processing software take over the work of evidence discovery. You used to have lots of bright people reading through various documents to find evidence and to figure out relationships among people, and now computers can basically do all that work, so lots of paralegals, lots of junior lawyers, lose their jobs because computers can do them. I think we will continue to see that kind of replacement of professional labor with analytical software. The job market is very complex, so it’s easy to become alarmist, but I do think the big challenge is probably less the total number of jobs in the economy then the distribution of those jobs. Because as soon as you are able to automate what used to be very skilled task, then you also de-skill them and, hence, you don’t have to pay the people who do them as much. We will probably see a continued pressure for the polarization of the workforce and the erosion of good quality, good paying middle class jobs.

CW: What do you want people to take away from this work?

Carr: I think we’re naturally very enthusiastic about technological advances, and particularly enthusiastic about the ways that engineers and programmers and other inventors can program inanimate machines and computers to do hard things that human beings used to do. That’s amazing, and I think we’re right to be amazed and enthusiastic about that. But I think often our enthusiasm leads us to make assumptions that aren’t in our best interest, assumptions that we should seek convenience and speed and efficiency without regard to the fact that our sense of satisfaction in life often comes from mastering hard challenges, mastering hard skills. My goal is simply to warn people.

I think we have a choice about whether we do this wisely and humanistically, or we take the road that I think we’re on right now, which is to take a misanthropic view of technological progress and just say ‘give computers everything they can possibly do and give human beings whatever is left over.’ I think that’s a recipe for diminishing the quality of life and ultimately short-circuiting progress.

Is Carr a Luddite?

Thibodeau claims “Carr’s book is not a defense of Luddites“.

Let’s look up the term Luddite.

According to Merriam-Webster a Luddite is “one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest; broadly: one who is opposed to especially technological change

Carr is not an extreme Luddite to the extent he wants to destroy machinery in protest. However, in the broader sense, it’s easy enough to make a case that he is indeed a Luddite.

Loss of Skills

  • Computers ended the need for a slide rule. The skill simply vanished. Should anyone care? As a side note, I can still use a slide rule. Many today have never heard of one. I have a totally useless skill.
  • Robots replaced human welders. Who does a better job? The robot or the human welder? I suggest the robot. Yet, welding did not and will not go away. No skills vanished. For quick repairs and specialized jobs, human welders will not cease to exist. If I am wrong and human welders do vanish completely, and as with slide rules, human welding skills will no longer be useful.
  • Cars replaced horses. Horse riding is still a skill, but it has far fewer practical uses. Should anyone be concerned?

Computers, Robots, and the Quality of Life

The most curious position of Carr is his conclusion: Computer technology is “a recipe for diminishing the quality of life“.

Ring the eject buzzer on that one. With the possible exception of warfare and nuclear accidents, there has never been any technological advance in history that was a “recipe for diminished quality of life”.

Yes, disruption is unwelcome to many. But Carr’s worries are no different than those who worried about cars replacing horses, the cotton gin replacing seed separators, or the telephone replacing the telegraph.

Does anyone pity the widespread loss of Morse Code skills?

Curiously, although the slide rule vanished, Morse Code did not go away completely as the link above shows. It still has some limited use applications, and yes, I could do an SOS in Morse Code (but no one would pay me a dime for that skill). 

Will 1 in 3 Jobs Vanish by 2025?

Is Gartner right that One in three jobs will be taken by software or robots by 2025?

If so, should there be a concern?

Real Concern

The real concern should not be the loss of jobs, but rather the Fed’s response and governmental responses to price-deflation aspects.

Technology is inherently price deflationary. It’s also wage deflationary except for those at the top-end of needed skills.

Central bank efforts to achieve 2% inflation in a hugely deflationary technological boom with a simultaneous and equally deflationary demographic shift is a huge problem.

In addition, liberal efforts to raise the minimum wage exacerbates the trend to move to robots.

If there is a “premature” move to robots, blame the Fed and governments, not the technology, and not businesses making the shift.

Question on Wealth  Distribution

Reader Michael asks …

As more and more wealth is produced using less and less labor, society will be faced with the question of how to distribute this wealth. Does only a tiny fraction of the world’s population get to enjoy the wealth or, do we realize that technology is enabling humans to enjoy more leisure and still have a share of the wealth?

To answer Michael’s question …

We should embrace technology and the increased standard of living that comes with it. Yes, those at the top-end have amazing lifestyles that most can only imagine. But, it’s also true that the average US citizen today lives like a king (and much longer) than someone 200 or even 100 years ago.

Every technological advance to date has been shared: computers, cell phones, television, sewing machines, radio, everything. It is inconceivable (actually impossible short of mass human extinction) for that trend to stop.

Everyone shares sooner or later. Competition ensures that outcome. Yet, it’s also inevitable that the need for certain skills dies along the way.

In the short run, disruption is scary, especially to those immediately impacted. In the long run, the only fear should be of the central planner’s (governments and central banks) response to such shifts.

Those who fear technology have precisely the wrong concern.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock