Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Difference Engine: Luddite legacy

The Economist article

The conventional explanation for America's current plight is that, at an annualised 2.5% for the most recent quarter (compared with an historical average of 3.3%), the economy is simply not expanding fast enough to put all the people who lost their jobs back to work [..]

There is a good deal of truth in that. But it misses a crucial change that economists are loth to accept, though technologists have been concerned about it for several years. This is the disturbing thought that, sluggish business cycles aside, America's current employment woes stem from a precipitous and permanent change caused by not too little technological progress, but too much. The evidence is irrefutable that computerised automation, networks and artificial intelligence (AI)—including machine-learning, language-translation, and speech- and pattern-recognition software—are beginning to render many jobs simply obsolete.

This is unlike the job destruction and creation that has taken place continuously since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as machines gradually replaced the muscle-power of human labourers and horses. Today, automation is having an impact not just on routine work, but on cognitive and even creative tasks as well. A tipping point seems to have been reached, at which AI-based automation threatens to supplant the brain-power of large swathes of middle-income employees [..].

Displaced agricultural workers [in the old days ..] could migrate from fields to factories and earn higher wages in the process. What is in store for the Dilberts of today? Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (“Program or Be Programmed” and “Life Inc”) would argue "nothing in particular." Put bluntly, few new white-collar jobs, as people know them, are going to be created to replace those now being lost—despite the hopes many place in technology, innovation and better education.

This is what Jeremy Rifkin, a social critic, was driving at in his book, “The End of Work”, published in [1996]. Though not the first to do so, Mr Rifkin argued prophetically that society was entering a new phase—one in which fewer and fewer workers would be needed to produce all the goods and services consumed. “In the years ahead,” he wrote, “more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilisation ever closer to a near-workerless world.” [..]

In 2009, Martin Ford, a software entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, noted in “The Lights in the Tunnel” that new occupations created by technology—web coders, mobile-phone salesmen, wind-turbine technicians and so on—represent a tiny fraction of employment [..].

In the end, the Luddites may still be wrong. But the nature of what constitutes work today—the notion of a full-time job—will have to change dramatically.

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