Tag Archives: automation

Brave New World

The past few decades have seen massive social changes, and even the most superficial scan of the current state of affairs leads to the inexorable conclusion that we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

I don’t think there’s a sufficient appreciation of the economic side of that change. Think, for example, of the imminent phenomenon of self-driving cars, and the ongoing collapse of brick-and-mortar retailing.

Self-driving vehicles will eliminate the jobs of five million people nationwide. These are people who make their living driving taxis, buses, vans, trucks and e-hailing vehicles; according to a Harvard labor economist, those jobs represent 3% of the national workforce, and most of them are held by men without college degrees, a demographic that has already been hit hard by the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.

Then there’s the cratering of traditional retailing.  More and more Americans shop on line, and one result is the proliferation of empty storefronts in the nation’s malls. Those empty shops signal the loss of thousands of clerking and sales positions. Warehouse work and online “customer service” jobs are unlikely to replace them all.

As I have written previously, international trade is not the culprit;  automation is what is relentlessly driving job losses, and automation isn’t confined to robots in coal mines or on the factory floor. We no longer hire people to pump our gas; a single secretary handles jobs that used to require three or four; automated check-outs are everywhere from the drug store to the parking garage. In many cases, these innovations create new jobs— requiring new and more demanding skills—but in many cases, they don’t.

And then there’s climate change. The deniers can stick their fingers in their ears and chant “la la la I can’t hear you” all they want, but ice keeps melting, weather keeps getting more unpredictable, oceans keep warming and rising, hurricanes get more powerful…and barring an unlikely concerted effort, by the end of this century large areas of the planet will become unlivable. One result will be mass migration on an unprecedented scale.

How will we cope with that when we can’t even resettle a comparatively small number of Syrian refugees?

One of the reason people are climate change deniers is the fact that the worst consequences are still some decades off, and they can pretend those consequences aren’t real. The economic threats posed by mass joblessness will be felt a lot sooner. And we are already encountering entirely new challenges posed by the acceleration of technology. One of my students wrote his research paper on –I kid you not–the legal liabilities of artificial intelligence. (It was an A+ paper, too.)

The paper considered the uses (and misuses) of ‘personal assistants” like Siri and Google Assistant. Legitimate concerns go well beyond identification theft through hacking.  If someone tells his personal assistant he intends to do something illegal, does the device (or its programmer) have a responsibility to remind him it’s illegal? To call the cops?  What if you tell your assistant you plan to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, and it obediently gives you directions to the nearest bridge? What if a crime is committed at your home and the police want to confiscate your personal assistant to determine who was interacting with it and at what time–is the assistant to be treated like the books of a business (discoverable) or is it entitled to protection against self-incrimination?

You may think this is all too fanciful, but Amazon has argued that First Amendment Free Speech rights should be extended to its Alexa assistant in certain circumstances, and a court has ruled that the way Google ranks search results is entitled to First Amendment protection.

Bottom line: humans on this planet are entering a twilight zone in which familiar work is disappearing, new technologies are forcing us to confront unfamiliar questions, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is becoming gargantuan–and all of this is happening in an environment that is drastically changing, both climatically and socially.

It really isn’t a good time to be governed by a clueless buffoon and a Congress filled with third-rate intellects and corrupt panderers.


Beyond the Factory Floor

The other day, I looked into a mirror and suddenly realized that my mother was looking back.

It sneaks up on you.

Most of us don’t notice the day-to-day changes in ourselves, or our environments, unless something triggers that recognition. That is especially true of the inexorable increase in automation–and it matters, because it is automation, far more than trade, that has eliminated so many American jobs. And that automation isn’t limited to spiffy robots on a factory floor; it is all around us.

When I first started to drive, gas station attendants pumped my gas and cleaned my windshield. These days, I pump my own gas, and the windshield gets cleaned when I go through the automated carwash. When I first practiced law, one legal secretary worked for two lawyers at most;  partners in the larger firms usually had their own secretary (and still dictated directly to her as she sat, steno pad in hand). Today, even in the “silk stocking” firms, lawyers type their own letters, emails and documents on their computers. Wealthier families often had maids and cooks; ever-improving home appliances have reduced the jobs available for such domestic help.

Old movies will sometimes feature the banks of telephone operators who used to direct calls, handle switching equipment and place “person to person” long-distance calls. My IPhone doesn’t require those switchboard operators. Speaking of telephones, those ubiquitous “telephone trees” are a decidedly mixed blessing, but most businesses use them rather than the human employees who used to answer the phones.

Remember the rows of bank tellers with eyeshades, who kept account ledgers by hand? Computers have replaced them.

I don’t know how much snail-mail has been replaced by email, but my guess is that we aren’t running short of postal workers.

As we anticipate an era of self-driving cars, we might consider the trade-off to come: greater safety and cost-effectiveness for individuals against eventual loss of employment for literally millions of truck, delivery van, taxi and Uber drivers.

Technological innovations make our lives more satisfying, our work more productive and our daily tasks more efficient–but they also take their toll on the workforce, and not just numerically. It’s true that many of these modern conveniences create new jobs, but rarely in the numbers they replace, and usually requiring a different and more demanding set of skills.

We are going to need some creative policies to deal with the accelerating and inevitable changes in the job market. Retraining–while undoubtedly a critical component–will not address the plight of the high-school dropout who lacks the capacity to learn more demanding skills, or the older displaced worker who cannot cope with radical change.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know we will continue to see machines displace human employees, and I’m pretty sure that bribing Carrier to delay moving 700 or so workers to Mexico is neither an answer nor a policy.