Friday, 17 January 2014

Economist: Bad time to be stupid

The economist informs us that technology is placing increasing pressure on lower income jobs:
One recent study by academics at Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated in the next two decades. ... If this analysis is halfway correct, the social effects will be huge. Many of the jobs most at risk are lower down the ladder (logistics, haulage), whereas the skills that are least vulnerable to automation (creativity, managerial expertise) tend to be higher up, so median wages are likely to remain stagnant for some time and income gaps are likely to widen.
No doubt much of this is true. Many current jobs will be automated, and many of these jobs will be 'lower down the ladder'. But is it true that these jobs that are most at risk are those that are least vulnerable to automation, and it is because of this that such 'lower' jobs face automation?

I am not convinced. The reason for this is that many of the jobs most able to be automated by the latest machine learning and automation technologies are high prestige, high wage positions. Automated medical diagnostics is now able to outperform your local GP, as well as many of their specialized colleagues.  Text based search can outperform any lawyer in searching for precedents in massive libraries of case histories. Managerial expertise, particularly the out-sourced consultant variety, is incredibly vulnerable to automated data analysis. The political class is arguably obsolete (at least in democracies) in an era where instant communication overcomes the obstacle of distance that plagued former forms of direct democracy (and no - it's not insane). Let us not even begin to discuss the ability of automated algorithms to render suboptimal your human financial experts...

The above paragraph may cause some cognitive dissonance. It is unlikely that technology will cause major job losses among doctors, lawyers, management consultants, politicians and financial experts. (Well, OK, maybe lawyers - supply and demand are finally making things are start to look grim for this formerly cosseted profession.) But it important to note that the reason why this is unlikely has nothing to do with technological progress. Rather, these professionals have excellent institutional and cultural protection from the technological trends that are buffeting lower income individuals.

GPs are not going to be replaced as our front line medical because the medical establishment would raise hell. Politicians and political parties are very unlikely to approve the investigation and validation of alternative governance methods where these would render them superfluous. No mention has been made of permitting defendants to have access to legal search algorithms when defending themselves. Financial mandarins in the major investment banks and financial centers continue to have sufficient market power to award themselves multimillion bonuses.

So the issue is not that neutral technology is about to cause major disruptions that will happen to fall disproportionately on lower income professions. Rather it is that the lower income professions will disproportionately feel the effects of these disruptions because powerful forces are ensuring that they bear this brunt.

In this context, it is unfortunate that the economist claims that: 
Anger about rising inequality is bound to grow, but politicians will find it hard to address the problem. Shunning progress would be as futile now as the Luddites’ protests against mechanised looms were in the 1810s, because any country that tried to stop would be left behind by competitors eager to embrace new technology. The freedom to raise taxes on the rich to punitive levels will be similarly constrained by the mobility of capital and highly skilled labour.
No. Politicians would find it relatively easy to let all sectors of the economy face the same tumultuous forces that the economist warns about. But there is very little interest in doing so.

What does the economist suggest instead? Education, of course.
schools themselves need to be changed, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking. Technology itself will help, whether through MOOCs (massive open online courses) or even video games that simulate the skills needed for work.
Ignore the fact that most of the professions that supposedly avoid the technology tsunami are doing so through exploiting privileged positions in the economic system. Ignore also that nobody is really sure what critical thinking skills are or why they are important. Also ignore that MOOCs have abysmal graduation rates. 

Fortunately, the economist has an answer to any failure of their remedy to address the problem:
Yet however well people are taught, their abilities will remain unequal, and in a world which is increasingly polarised economically, many will find their job prospects dimmed and wages squeezed.
Ah. It turns out that those who will lose out in the coming dislocation are probably simply stupid...

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