Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel “Player Piano” was more than his first. It was arguably the first “dystopian utopia” novel of a world carefully described and proscribed for everyone involved. Those with technical degrees were the masters of the carefully planned world, and the rest either joined the army or worked for the “Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps” building infrastructure. Government took care of everyone, but not all were happy. Rebellion steeped under the calm surface in both the working class and the unchallenged rulers.
It’s hard to not think of such a world when reading “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs” from the Pew Research Center and Elon University. A survey of 1,896 experts in technical areas were asked what they thought the future world of employment might look like – how much automation might displace workers and how many jobs it might create. The results read something like Vonnegut imagined – enough so that a little anxiety about the next economy is justified.
The survey started with a tough question. “Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?” About half (48%) thought that technology will displace more jobs than it creates, and the other half (52%) assumed technology would create more. It’s hardly an overwhelming response.
But it gets more interesting when the researchers drilled down into the reasons each side believed their case and what has to be done about it.
The cases for technology creating jobs are more interesting, and write far sexier headlines. It boils down to “technology has always created more jobs” as much as anything. But a delicate analysis was put well by John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times.“You didn’t allow the answer that I feel strongly is accurate—too hard to predict. There will be a vast displacement of labor over the next decade. That is true. But, if we had gone back 15 years who would have thought that ‘search engine optimization’ would be a significant job category?”
The case against technology creating jobs comes down to the observation that we have realized a divided society, where there is less work for the unskilled but nearly unlimited opportunities for those with technical degrees. Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said, “Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work—even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers, and accountants. There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone—and these will not pay a living wage.”
It’s the likely growth of income inequality that will be the biggest obstacle as the skills gap widens. And that’s when the two sides start to come together.
Both sides agree that education systems have to change to accommodate the need for new skills – and keep changing as new jobs open up in areas we can’t imagine right now. And somehow the income will be distributed more evenly if we all embrace the leisure time that opens up – either by convention or, perhaps by laws that limit the workweek.
Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, envisions a future with fewer ‘jobs’ but a more equitable distribution of labor and leisure time: “The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work. Robots of various forms will result in less work, but the conventional work week will decrease, so there will be the same number of jobs (adjusted for demographics, of course). This is what has been going on for the last 300 years so I see no reason that it will stop in the decade.”
Given the demographic challenges as a smaller share of the workforce is employed, and indeed if it is true that there is already a limited amount of paid work to go around, the challenges are severe. But demographics favor the young as Baby Boomers start to retire and open up opportunities, one way or the other. It’s hard to tell exactly where it is going.
But the Pew Center study makes a good read for anyone concerned about the future – as does “Player Piano”. What will the role be for government as we move to a world more driven by technology and leisure? How will it be organized? The parts that the Pew Study leaves out are at least as fascinating as what they covered. But it’s a good conversation to start, no matter what.