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The Real Job Threat 990

Posted by Soulskill
from the semi-intelligent-potatoes dept.
NicknamesAreStupid writes "The NYTimes reports on a book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee (MIT director-level staffers), Race Against the Machine, which suggests that the true threat to jobs is not outsourcing — it's the machine! Imagine the Terminator flipping burgers, cleaning your house, approving your loan, handling your IT questions, and doing your job faster, better, and more cheaply. Now that's an apocalypse with a twist — The Job Terminator." Reader wjousts points out another of the authors' arguments: that IT advances have cost more jobs than they've created.
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The Real Job Threat

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    If you use and like the amenities that become possible with technology, then calling technology a "job terminator" is at best hypocrisy.

    • by MrEricSir (398214) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:57PM (#37834838) Homepage

      ...is a new version of the Amish where they shun all technology developed after, say, 2010. That way I can keep my job as a software developer, but I don't have to learn any of these newfangled technologies.

    • If you use and like the amenities that become possible with technology, then calling technology a "job terminator" is at best hypocrisy.

      What a major fail in logic you have displayed there pal. What sort of logic system or formal model do you use where liking the amenities of technology is mutually exclusive/contradictory to calling such things a job terminator?

      Seriously, what major brain fart. I like the amenities provided by technology. That doesn't prevent me from pointing out what is f* obvious, that automation in its current form has lead to a certain number of people not being employed (and not being able to find employment) anymore.

  • When you fill out on-line lines of credit applications robots decide on a variety of factors if you qualify or not! They can decide to approve or deny them, OR send them for human (I assume human) revision to approve or deny. So lets get rid of these robots! Except the ones that drive you, that would be pretty sweeet!

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:45PM (#37834588) Journal
    Why didn't combines and massive tractors ruin agriculture jobs in the United States? I mean, they clearly replaced the work of many men and the same could be said then: "Many farm hands, in short, are losing the race against the machine." The combines got bigger and faster and more efficient and suddenly you even needed fewer operators!

    Well, the fact is that at first there were people that lost their jobs (the generation undergoing restructuring in their trade) ... I thought in economics they called this restructuralization unemployment or some such term that wasn't necessarily bad unemployment. But they found work elsewhere -- all four of my grandparents were dirt farmers and I sure the hell am not. Sure, I grew up working on farms but picking rock and bailing hay are chump jobs. I herald the man that does away with that work. I think this statement is universally true: You could provide someone the means to complete all the work they want and -- given they are industrious enough -- you can come back the next day and they will be ready to pay you for more work done in new and different ways.

    People have asked me if I'm afraid about open source ruining my software job. I couldn't be more diametrically opposed to that position. Open source basically makes me better at my job and ensures my future by empowering me to do my job better. I could give someone all the software they ask for one day and come back the next day only to have them asking me for more software.

    There will always be more work to be done and I think there will always be more software to write for a very very very long time. I'm more worried that people have forgotten how to clean a chicken or simply grow enough vegetables and plants to survive (should we ever be thrust backwards).
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by chill (34294)

      The issue is machine are moving up the spectrum from unskilled labor to skilled labor. Yes, picking rock and baling hay are chump jobs but think of where things are going.

      For example, look at the advances Google has capitalized on for autonomous driving. I can easily envision the jobs of taxi driver, chauffeur, airline pilot and bus driver going away in a reasonable amounts of time. And just look at the skill gamut there. Commercial airline pilot is a bit more up the ladder than taxi driver. But with GPS an

    • by socz (1057222)

      Although there is always more work to do, that doesn't mean there's always people who want to do it. Interestingly enough, I think part of the reason for advancement in technology (on farms) was not only for greater profit, but also to replace the hard to find work. Sure, "anyone" could work the farm, but that doesn't mean they were any good at it OR they wanted to do it. Having read books about migrant workers, they were very poorly treated and extremely underpaid - both because they were "undocumented wor

      • by sean.peters (568334) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:30PM (#37836438) Homepage

        Now adays you can't get "documented" workers to break their backs on farms

        You mean, nowadays you can't get documented workers to break their back on farms, under deplorable working conditions, for a tiny paycheck and no benefits. FTFY.

        I guarantee you that you could find people to do the work if you were willing to pay a decent wage, didn't expose them to pesticides, provided retirement and medical, etc.

        • by mcvos (645701)

          Exactly. It's not automation that's the problem, it's competition! Food has to be cheap, or else it will be imported from countries where people are willing to work in deplorable conditions. Same thing with manufacturing. Our labour is expensive, while or goods have to be cheap.

          Personally I don't think it'd hurt us too much if our food got slightly more expensive. A fine example of this is milk in Netherland. Many cattle farmers can hardly make a decent living while working insane hours. Of the price we pay

    • Because combines are specialized machines that can only replace one category of work and at a fairly high cost.

      Robots are generalized machines which are cheap ($15k per year to lease and can "work" 2.5 shifts per day with 99% uptime- no benefits, no sick time- no vacation time- no lawsuits).

      Any expensive thinking job can be offshored now.
      Any "no brainer" work can be done by a machine.
      A large number of medium skill jobs have been turned into applicaitons like Microsoft Office.
      Recepitionists have been replace

    • I for one support automation of everything that can be automated, but to play devil's advocate, agricultural automation has ruined that sector as a source of jobs. In case you hadn't noticed, economies everywhere used to be agrarian first, urban second. The agriculture industry can no longer support so large a percentage of the population financially, and what's left is more efficient as a conglomerate than a family operation. Both of which are as likely as not to hire people below minimum wage where more p
    • by Hatta (162192) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:13PM (#37835108) Journal

      Absolutely. More efficiency is always good. If the benefits of that increased efficiency are not distributed equally, that's a problem with the economic system, not the automation.

    • by Dhalka226 (559740) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:30PM (#37835412)

      There will always be more work to be done

      I think you're begging the question. Even if there was always more work to do in the past, that doesn't necessarily mean there will be in the future. However I don't even agree with that assumption.

      Your grandparents were farmers and you are not, but that doesn't mean that machines destroying farming as a job leads to "more work." It just means that you found work elsewhere; somebody else very well may have not. You "took" somebody else's job, the machines didn't magically create it for you out of the rubble of the jobs they replaced.

      I do agree with you partially: There is always work to be done, but not necessarily more work. Short of some extremely advanced and downright scary AI, there will always be jobs in this hypothetical world for programming the robots, and always work for mechanics repairing the robots. There will always be work to do in research. There will always be some degree of a service sector -- especially once we decide that those sorts of jobs are where we stick people to say they have a job. But all these things will shrink. They will not support hundreds of millions of workers in the US, and even if they magically could not everybody is suited for these jobs.

      And that's assuming most of the jobs left actually stay in the country, which there is little reason to believe that they will for areas like software.

      There will always be work, but there won't always be enough work, and our system of values and economy will have to change in ways I can't even fathom the workings of.

    • by couchslug (175151) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:47PM (#37835714)

      "I'm more worried that people have forgotten how to clean a chicken or simply grow enough vegetables and plants to survive (should we ever be thrust backwards)."

      Plenty of us can do those things. We share our insights via the internet instead of by mimeographed newsletters. If we are "thrust backwards" the knowledge will survive and propagate. We have hundreds of years of technology to choose from.

      Self and wife raise chickens, who are healthier because of what we learned on the internet even though we have plenty of farmer friends we also ask for info. We obtain parts for our 1937 Chevrolet truck (and our other trucks and motorcycles) via Ebay. I use Purox oxy-acetylene torches which are essentially unchanged since the 1930s. I learned about them via the internet, and can have most any part I wish in-hand in a few days.

      Modern technology offers many ways to learn about less-modern technology. Being "thrust backward" is unlikely, but modern information tech makes learning about the spectrum of useful tech much easier.

      I grew up before computers were commonplace. If anyone tells you those were "the good old days", punch them in the throat with my compliments.

      "Open source basically makes me better at my job and ensures my future by empowering me to do my job better."

      Of course. Open Source means you aren't locked out like some sharecropper from land he'll never control.

    • It the number of people working in agriculture is any indication then yes, machinery did ruin agriculture jobs.

    • by sean.peters (568334) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:27PM (#37836398) Homepage

      And by lately, I mean ever?

      Why didn't combines and massive tractors ruin agriculture jobs in the United States?

      Dude, I hate to break this to you, but combines and tractors DID ruin agriculture jobs in the United States. Time was that a majority of the US workforce was employed in agriculture. Now we're down to about 1% of the workforce.

      And sure, in the past, all those displaced ag workers found other work, including doing things like building the tractors and combines. But if we get to the point (as suggested by TFA) where suddenly, large swathes of the workforce are being replaced all at once by robots... what then? The robots build themselves (not entirely, obviously, but without a lot of human labor required), so there's no help there.

      There will always be more work to be done

      I'm no longer so sure. In the not-too-distant future, a huge proportion of the workforce may be "made redundant", as the Brits say, by machines. What the hell are we going to do then?

      • People always do something with their time. It doesn't just get shelved, it's spent. So what happens when people are left unemployed? Two things really. Either they socialize and turn small events into larger ones, become introverted, or... focus their attention on others in a negative way. So while machines may provide food and shelter, people will spend more time on religion and criminal behavior. Flash mobs, war, self sacrifice. All of the emotions, behaviors, and other social constructs of humanity will

  • by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:45PM (#37834592)

    The problem with this absurd argument is that people want stuff, not jobs. The only reason you work a job is so you can buy the things you want/need. And if you don't have to work as much to get them, that's hardly a problem.

    • by spiffmastercow (1001386) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:53PM (#37834742)

      The problem with this absurd argument is that people want stuff, not jobs. The only reason you work a job is so you can buy the things you want/need. And if you don't have to work as much to get them, that's hardly a problem.

      The problem is that we're not willing to accept an economic system that's more in tune with the realities of modern life. If there's less work to do, we need to improve the quality of life per unit of work ratio to keep people from falling into poverty simply because there's no work for them to do.

      • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:00PM (#37835918)

        There's this crazy Protestant work ethic thing. So instead of everybody taking it easy we've converted all the excess workers who used to farm or do manual labour into people who sell us stuff, sue us, or entertain us.

  • Why is it bad ? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Arlet (29997) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:46PM (#37834600)

    So, instead of working, you can now play while a machine does the work. Seems like an improvement to me.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      Only the person who owns the machine gets the profits of it.

      It is highly unlikely that the person who is loosing the job owns the robot that replaces him.

      • Re:Why is it bad ? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by TheCouchPotatoFamine (628797) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:56PM (#37834802)
        ....and now we can clearly show: taxes from the government help redistribute wealth accumulated through automation. Automation will DEMAND redistribution, or we will all starve in the midst of plenty.. which is a pretty stupid thing to do just to make one person obscenely rich.
        • which is a pretty stupid thing to do just to make one person obscenely rich.

          That's already happened. Ever heard of the Koch Brothers? Ok - that's several people - but you get my point

      • by Arlet (29997)

        You don't have to own the machines. Because of all the automation on the farms, and industry, I can now buy a loaf of bread for a dollar. The profits of the machines are passed on to everybody.

      • by tylersoze (789256)

        God forbid we should adapt our economic system to these new realities. I mean capitalism is the be all and end all, right?

      • Re:Why is it bad ? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by stewbacca (1033764) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:32PM (#37835436)

        Only the person who owns the machine gets the profits of it.

        And the sales guy who sold the machine, and the receptionist at the company where the sales guy works, and the engineer who designed the machine, and the workers who manufactured the machine (or the engineers who designed the automation of the manufacturing of the machine), and the programmer who programmed the machine, and the software engineer who designed the programming, and the tech writer who wrote the tech specs, and the trainers who trained the product, and the all of those peoples' managers.

        You would greatly increase the job market (and raise the median income significantly) in this country with every one burger flipper replaced by technology.

  • Any job that can be automated will be automated. Machines don't get sick, they don't take holidays, and they don't complain. Most important to business is the fact that they're cheaper.

    The current system of economy and government will eventually have to change for the simple reason that a world where the only people with money are the owners of the machines isn't feasible. People need jobs to survive. I've spent time between jobs and on welfare, and it was boring as hell. I can't understand people w

  • by Scareduck (177470) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:48PM (#37834642) Homepage Journal

    Your steam drill is calling on line one.

    Seriously, this is the kind of discussion we get from the economically illiterate. There is a story, frequently attributed to Milton Friedman [blogspot.com], regarding this sort of nonsense:

    "At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: 'You don't understand. This is a jobs program.' To which Milton replied: 'Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it's jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.'"

    • by dskzero (960168)
      Milton Friedman was quite a sarcastical jackass. (I have, of course, no idea who he was. This is also my cue to google his name)
    • 'Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it's jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.'

      The spoons/shovels thing is just a reductionist argument. In the end we want both 'canals' and jobs don't we---both products, productivity, and the means to distribute the resulting goods, services in a way that scales to the contribution given in creating them. Too much in either direction is silly.

      • by Solandri (704621) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:21PM (#37835248)
        The goal is always increased productivity. If it results in fewer jobs, that doesn't mean the increase in productivity is bad, it means your jobs retraining programs are inadequate. The point of the anecdote is that increasing jobs at the cost of productivity is counter-productive. You are better off building the canal with machines at lower cost, and using the money saved to create other jobs.
  • by SecurityGuy (217807) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:48PM (#37834646)

    I've had similar thoughts myself. The problem isn't that machines are going to do jobs people now do, it's that people have been misled to believe their function is to do jobs. Your "job" is to live. Go outside. Have fun. Play with your kids. If we're lucky, someday all these mundane things we have to do now will not need to be done in the future. Your lawnba will cut your grass. Something will crawl up and down your house to paint it.

    That said, there's really not a lack of useful work to be done. There's tons to be done in the sciences, for example. Medical research is wide open. There's so much we don't know yet.

  • Manna? (Score:3, Informative)

    by nine932038 (1934132) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:48PM (#37834662)

    There was a story about this involving some sort of super AI called Manna. It ended up essentially destroying the economy, I believe, and relegating everyone below the highest classes to concentration camps for poor people.

    I don't know that their solution was ideal, but I do suspect that a post-scarce economy is what we need to investigate.

  • by sapgau (413511) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:49PM (#37834682) Journal

    Sometimes is this kick in the pants that forces people to innovate. It's not the first time it happens and people are forced to adapt. Sort of what is happening in the us economy right now...

  • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:51PM (#37834708) Homepage

    There used to be this sci-fi notion that one day, we'd have robots do all of our work, and it would free humanity to live fulfilling lives without toiling on stupid shit. Now we have robots doing all the work, but instead we've used this as an opportunity to impoverish the people who have been put out of work.

    Can we change course? Where is our sci-fi paradise?

  • He's putting the buggy whip manufacturers out of business!

  • by flibbidyfloo (451053) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:56PM (#37834804)

    on a related topic - maybe the author needs to read Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness" and relax a bit: http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html [zpub.com]

  • I'm an intelligence analyst. We're not going to outsource anything that requires a security clearance, and there's no automated software or hardware that can synthesize multiple disparate pieces of evidence into a coherent picture of the battlespace and an assessment of future friendly and enemy courses of action. Yet.
  • I don't care how good machines get there are certain 'service' jobs for humans that will always be in demand. ;)

    Seriously though, I was thinking of MMOs recently and the market for them. For the most part the target market is people who've had their lives made easier by machines. I can't see a machine coming up with all that World of Warcraft is.

    The day that machines can come up with Facebook or World of Warcraft or the iPad or a best selling novel is when we have to worry. Machines that invent or c

  • Then ?

    google 'venus project'.
  • Is that if you happen to live in a 1st world country, you still have a place in the economy, babysitting the machines which do everything else.

    Outsourcing on the other hand means that regarldess of your skills or choices, you won't have a job.

  • Not a new argument (Score:4, Informative)

    by dkleinsc (563838) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:04PM (#37834940) Homepage

    It's really not even close to a new argument. The basic idea, put forward by the Luddites was that new technology makes workers more and more superfluous, ruining the lives of workers.

    Karl Marx even took it a step further: He argued that while the new technology leads to lower prices of goods and services, which would appear to benefit workers, he pointed out that employers would then adjust to the lower cost of living by lowering real wages, which meant that the lowest-level workers don't benefit at all from the technology.

  • Congratulations (Score:5, Interesting)

    by br00tus (528477) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:05PM (#37834962)

    Congratulations to them, they've discovered something Karl Marx talked about when he published Capital in 1867.

    What this means is a question of social relations. What it could mean is less working hours for everyone, more vacation time, more time for studying and learning, more time for out-there R&D projects, all the while with ever-increasing wealth. But that would be if social relations were in one parameter. Currently it means mass unemployment, chronic debt crises, and IP patent lawsuits. It means bust and boom cycles where in the late 1990s, Silicon Valley pulled in any kid with a high school diploma interested in IT and had them working 60-70-80 hours for years, before casting them off into long-term unemployment.

    Ever-increasing productivity could be something people looked forward to, instead of being something that was a real threat to putting food on their table, as the Luddites who smashed mechanized looms realized. That better productivity winds up harming the majority of people is a contradiction within the current system of production we live under. At some point, these contradictions become too great and the system breaks down, then it needs some major reconfiguring. We already see one thought of how this will be done in the US, with all this talk about privatizing Social Security and privatizing education into charter schools. Of course, there's little discussion of why the US spends so much on military bases in Cuba, or Italy, or Kyrgyzstan. Or why it needs 11 aircraft carriers, when there are only 20 aircraft carriers in the world, and only two countries with more than 1 (Spain and Italy). Aside from minor cuts that's not even a question, it's easier politically to cut money to the majority of old Americans or young Americans than the military empire.

  • by RobinEggs (1453925) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:05PM (#37834966)
    All of these ways in which people are losing work wouldn't be a problem if we let go of one fundamental idiocy in American job policy: the idea that more time worked is better.

    Americans, in general, seem to think you're only worthy of a respectable income and worthy of overall economic security if you work at least 32 - 40 hours a week, and we're perfectly happy to see doctors, lawyers, programmers, and entrepreneurs pump out 80+ hours per week.

    We're just about the only country dumb enough to do this. As automation and industrialization took a firm hold through Europe in the 20th century most of them allowed people more leisure time, effectively spreading the shrinking pool of necessary work across the population.

    America, on the other hand, converted all or nearly all of the gains into standard of living increases, most of them not even measured in infrastructure or public works (much of which is in disasterously bad shape at the moment), but in personal possessions like luxury goods and larger homes.

    So we watch the pool of strictly necessary jobs, that is to say those that deal directly with food, sanitation, manufacturing, etc. and haven't yet been replaced by robots, shrink by the day, but we still absolutely demand that people work 40 hours a week and take less vacation time than any of their European counterparts.

    Less work, more people, absolutely no reduction in hours worked. Where did we think that was going to get us? The invention of entirely new fields and the expansion of academia, research, new bullshit financial positions, etc. isn't enough to replace all of the lost work that simply isn't needed anymore.

    So we let people go without. And then we send even more jobs overseas.

    Seriously, we had it coming.
    • So we watch the pool of strictly necessary jobs, that is to say those that deal directly with food, sanitation, manufacturing, etc. and haven't yet been replaced by robots, shrink by the day, but we still absolutely demand that people work 40 hours a week and take less vacation time than any of their European counterparts. Less work, more people, absolutely no reduction in hours worked. Where did we think that was going to get us? The invention of entirely new fields and the expansion of academia, research, new bullshit financial positions, etc. isn't enough to replace all of the lost work that simply isn't needed anymore. So we let people go without. And then we send even more jobs overseas. Seriously, we had it coming.

      Something you didn't mention was this idea from the Puritans that the more work you do...the more you would be blessed. The flaws in this is you have those with the means who employ you believing you're stealing from them if you do less work...leave early...ask for time off or aren't sitting on your phone to jump at your master's voice at all times.

      There was an on-call job I was at where if you finished the job for the day...you were required to put in face time until the end of the day or else you were

  • by Joe_Dragon (2206452) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:52PM (#37835800)

    make full time 30-35 hours a week

  • by mattack2 (1165421) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:02PM (#37835958)

    I didn't RFTA, but I'd rather have machines flipping my burgers, doing my cleaning, etc.

  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:05PM (#37836006) Homepage

    The "threat of automation" is finally getting attention because it's hitting the middle class. It hit machine tool operators decades ago. There was an assumption that if you went to college, there's always be some kind of office job for your. That's ending. The world of paper pushing is coming to an end. The paper industry itself is hurting and mills are closing. At first, computers increased paper consumption, but that peaked years back.

    I expected it sooner. I was surprised to see new office buildings going up after 2000 or so.

    What does the future look like? The favelas of Rio and Mexico City, surrounding the cities of the rich. That's where productivity and capitalism takes us.

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