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The Real Job Threat 990

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 on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:43PM (#37834550)

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

  • 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.

  • 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 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.

  • 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?

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

    by Arlet ( 29997 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:54PM (#37834762)

    If the machines do the work, things get cheaper, so you don't need as much income to buy them. The rest is a matter of distribution.

  • by chill ( 34294 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:56PM (#37834794) Journal

    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 and other advances, combined with the realization that the bulk of reported incidents are the result of human error, I can see even that job disappearing in a couple decades.

    I can also envision advanced expert systems, combined with ultra cheap sensors and improved computer vision replacing most -- if not ALL -- medical professionals.

    Ditto lawyers, accountants and auto mechanics.

    The only reason it will go as slow as it does is the comfort level of older people. They'll have to die off, but as their kids grow up with RoboDoc, things will rapidly change.

  • 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.
  • 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.

  • Re:Err ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wjousts ( 1529427 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:14PM (#37835120)

    That's true. The problem was everybody thought we'd have the Jetson's future. The (clearly, horribly, mistaken with hindsight) assumption has that if two workers worked an 8 hour day, then along came some new piece of technology that meant they could do the same amount of work in 4 hours, the two workers would work 4 hour days and have 4 extra hours of leisure time to enjoy the fruits of man-kinds ingenuity. What they didn't realize, but should have been blindingly obvious, is that the company that hires those two people would, instead, just fire one of them and make the other guy do BOTH jobs in an 8 hour day. So instead of the 1950's era vision of a future utopia with people doing less work and enjoying their life more, we have half the people unemployed (and miserable with no money) and the other half over worked (and miserable with no time).

    Isn't the future grand?

  • Re:Maintenance? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by slashdottedjoe ( 1448757 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:19PM (#37835204)

    If machines are used to the point that productivity becomes so high that many items become extremely inexpensive, then fewer people will need full time jobs in the first place, more people will work less and enjoy the benefits of a modern robotic world. The fact is before machines life was hard. Yes, no machines to take your place, but you worked virtually all day scraping out a meager existence which offered inadequate nutrition and limited options for shelter.

    Remember that machines have made many things extremely cheap. Imagine a house being built with future concrete printing machines. A quality, strong home could cost a fraction of what a typical house is today. You could pay it off in 5 years, free and clear.

    Just another perspective that shows there can be a bright side to automation. Maybe the ideal use of people is engineering and maintaining of machines and personal interaction with other people. Maybe working 70hrs a week and getting carpal tunnel is not an optimized use of a human being.

  • 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.
  • 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.

  • Re:Why is it bad ? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by GrumpySteen ( 1250194 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:46PM (#37835692)

    That's the same rationale that gave us trickle down theory, tax cuts for the wealthy, middle class incomes falling rather than rising and a massive increase in income disparity.

    It may sound nice on paper, but reality doesn't work that way.

  • Re:Maintenance? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by peragrin ( 659227 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:46PM (#37835698)

    Not quite. Everything will still need raw resources. That will limit supplies, thusa need for money to determine who gets what.

  • 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.

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

    make full time 30-35 hours a week

  • by avandesande ( 143899 ) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @03:57PM (#37835874) Journal

    Most poor people own an entertainment robot, it's called a PS3 or XBOX.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • Re:Maintenance? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Genda ( 560240 ) <mariet@goTIGERt.net minus cat> on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @04:43PM (#37836634) Journal

    This has been the topic of a great deal of discussion. The problem is that in the current economy we live in, the benefit of greater and greater efficiency through human replacement by robots goes to a small handful of people. The rest simply find themselves scrambling harder and harder for the fewer and fewer remaining jobs. Ultimately, everyone becomes unemployed. We are quickly heading towards a two class society, with all but perhaps a few hundred haves (and their families), and 7 billion have nots.

    If you think of "Fair Trade" as a game (see game theory), this game is so designed such that the nature of human competition demands there must eventually be a winner, and the effect of technology is to ever accelerate the rate of play. A winner in this case resolves to one person, or a tiny group or family. This is why we have barriers to monopoly (the place where capitalism fundamentally fails to serve the greater population.) Sadly, over the last 30 years, the control rods have been removed from the reactor, the planets wealth and control has been placed in the hands of tiny few financial houses. A team in Zurich using a database of 37 million companies looked at the 43,000 critical transactional corporations on the planet and found that only 147 controlled the entire structure, and that these were primarily banks. [newscientist.com]

    Add to that the accelerating trend to criminalize poverty, and the advent of "for profit" privatized prisons. We have a strategy to turn the vast majority of humanity into a captive resource. Add to that the separation of sexes in prison (controlling population growth), and one might conclude a program designed to sequester and control humanity is now fully under way. Ever since the French Revolution, the rich and powerful have exquisitely been clear where the threat to their control lies. They now have the resource and the means to manipulate large populations. We are left misinformed, confused, angry, and impotent.

    I'm not saying this is happening, and these observations may represent naturally emergent phenomenon, that is a global system like ours may naturally tend to resolve into a small controlling class. It demands that we begin to look at what kind of world we actually hope to live in, and press for that. One possible outcome is that people are issued stock at birth (retroactively) on global corporations so as they lose their jobs, the growing robotic economies provide them with a life long pension and high quality of life. That way all people can participate in technological advance fairly and equally. This is only one possible ideam there are many. We simply need to ensure that human life remains a precious and the quality of that life remains sacred.

I came, I saw, I deleted all your files.