Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Automation and the Jobless Future

This week I’m attending ASU’s 3rd Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy, and Ethics (here). The conference is extraordinarily interesting. The plenary session addressed Technological Unemployment.

I found presentations by Martin Ford and James Hughes to be particularly interesting.

You can read about Ford’s “Rise of the Machines” and the jobless future here: http://www.wired.com/2015/04/rise-machines-future-lots-robots-jobs-humans/

James Hughes’ warning that technology must be implemented democratically is found in, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future,  http://www.amazon.com/Citizen-Cyborg-Democratic-Societies-Redesigned/dp/0813341981

They both argue that automation has created unprecedented productivity expansions that have gone disproportionately to owners and top managers of large companies. Theirs is not a new argument, but they each developed it well with strong evidence. Google, for example has a small fraction of Ford’s workforce (5 percent) , but reaps even greater profitability.

Each speaker explored policy responses to long-term unemployment trends, ranging from a minimum guaranteed income to early retirement. I like the idea of early retirement! Young people are being shut out of upwardly mobile jobs as older people fail to retire because of economic insecurity. There were many other policy options I wont review here but can be found in their published work.

Take away points: both thinkers recognized that automation is not implemented democratically and serves the interests of efficiency over other social values, including employment.

Neither thinker rejected technological innovation. Rather, they argued that decision making about the types of technologies developed and implemented should include social impacts.

Neither thinker addressed the role of environmental resource limits in curtailing the potential for future automation. Automation is only efficient if the energy to produce the machines and operate them is inexpensive.
I always enjoyed the technological utopia presented with the Jetsons cartoon when I was a kid but I took the red pill and know the difference between false utopias and authentic dystopias.

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