Are Machines Going To Put Us All Out Of Jobs? Well, Not All Of Us…Yet

Over at Forbes, there is: speculation from Andrew McAfee that in the future, it’ll be the humans who become obsolete instead of the machines.

To articulate the core of his argument, McAfee draws from the concept of exponential growth patterns. The numbers at the beginning of any exponential curve (1+2+4+8+16….etc) are easy to comprehend. It isn’t until later in the progression that intuition breaks down and human imagination is outstripped by the explosive growth in the doubling pattern. With regards to the digitization of labor, McAfee argues that we may have just entered the “knee” of the curve; the portion of the growth pattern characterized by massive acceleration.

The encroachment of digitized labor into the economic system is now accelerating, and the scope of the phenomenon is as of yet unknown. McAfee admits that much of today’s economic pain is probably caused by the hangover left from the 2008 crisis in the U.S., and the current crisis in Europe. McAfee points out, however, that corporate profits in the U.S. have never been higher and that companies are back to spending; especially on things like IT. What companies are not doing is hiring new employees. McAfee shows BLS data showing that the 2000s were the first decade since World War II in which there were fewer people working at the end than at the beginning. Hiring hasn’t returned, suggests McAfee, in part because technology is being injected into the economy at such a staggering rate that there is a decreasing need for human workers.

The Lost Decade for Job Growth

If the computer era for business purposes has been around since the 60’s, then why is it now in 2012 that we should be concerned? McAfee argues that we are now in an age of unprecedented acceleration, where our experience of the past is no longer a good guide for the future. The comparative advantage of human labor over machines is washing away before our eyes…

This has actually been a long, ongoing process. Thanks to shipping containers, more economical international transportation, and computers, the world is a lot smaller than it used to be. A firm headquartered in Indiana can now plausibly have its products manufactured in China, its tech support in India, and its branch offices everywhere from Vietnam to Zimbabwe. What this means is that American workers are competing with workers all across the world in a way that they didn’t 50 years ago. Automation increases the pressure because it can handle a lot of simple tasks that used to require massive amounts of human labor.

As a practical matter, what this means is that there are a lot less “good jobs” out there for people with minimal skills and education than there used to be – and those jobs aren’t coming back. Moreover, in 20 years, when computers will likely be able to compete with and even surpass the intelligence of the average person, even a lot of the people who consider themselves to be well educated today may not be able to keep up. How that’s going to play out in the long haul is hard to say, but even at this stage in the game it should be impacting how we approach issues like immigration and education.

We don’t need more people to pick lettuce; we need more scientists. We don’t need more women’s studies majors; we need more engineering majors. The world is changing and we may not be able to predict how far it will ultimately go, but we can at least see which way the wind is blowing.

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