You’ve probably been hearing a lot lately about people’s jobs being replaced by technology. There have been stories about fast food workers, truck drivers, lawyers and doctors all seeing jobs lost in the future to some form of technology. As an engineer active in high technology who reads articles in technical journals in addition to what most people might see in the main stream media, I think I can add some realistic insight into what is possible.
The idea for this post came while listening to The Survival Podcast. The host Jack Spirko has discussed the topic numerous times recently including this episode with John Pugliano, the finance and investing expert who is frequently on the show.
Before diving into the discussion, it is a good idea to get some terms straight. The term robot should be reserved for a device that moves, it need not be a human like device but for something to be robotic, it must involve motion. Artificial Intelligence should only be applied to computer programs that learn by getting feedback on previous results. The earliest example of AI that I know of, was a simple game, written in BASIC, back in the 70s, called hexpawn. It was played with 6 chess pawns on a small grid. The computer player would start out making random moves, so at first the human opponent would win the games easily. But with each game played, the computer player would learn what moves failed and would improves it’s play till it was as good or better than the human opponent.
So from what I’ve read the “robot” lawyer that fixes traffic tickets, is neither a robot nor an example of artificial intelligence. It is simply a program written by someone who knows how the traffic court system works. It is probably similar to income tax software that asks a series of questions to help people fill out their taxes. The online Teaching Assistant that has also been in the news does use AI, because of that it has improved it’s handling of questions over the several semesters that it has been used. So I think there has been some miss-representation of technology in the main stream media.
In spite of some over hype in the MSM, I think that from a strictly engineering viewpoint, almost every job people have today has the potential to be radically altered or even totally replaced by technology. If you think back 30 years, you’ll see that has been the case for many jobs already. Jack Spirko has said that he gets a lot of push back from The Survival Podcast audience when he brings that idea up, but I think that is wishful thinking on the part of many in his audience.
If we just assume technology marches forward, the result might be a world with an elite class, a well off class that creates and maintains the technology that serves the elite class and a peasant class which would be in a constant struggle for survival. The elite class would not need the majority of people to work for them or to be customers of their businesses, the tech class would provide for all their wants and needs through technology. In time the class that controls technology might realize that they don’t need the elites and overthrow them to become the elite class. (Would the robots become smarter than the people and take over – a common sci-fi theme – whales and dolphins may be as smart as humans but without an opposing thumb they can’t do what humans can. So we better not give the robots thumbs!) Of course the more resourceful people in the peasant class would do better than most and a parallel economy would exist in that class that deals mostly in necessities.
Jack and John felt that technology would provide them with new opportunities, but under this scenario, opportunities that might occur would be fleeting, as most would end up left out of the technology bonanza. To understand why this might be the case, the economic concept of “rent takers” is useful.
I first came across the concept of rent taking from an article that I read in a newspaper called Electrical Engineering Times back in the 1980s. The gist of the article was that the U.S. economy would be better off if more students would decide to become engineers instead of becoming lawyers, because an engineer contributes to wealth creation while a lawyer is a rent taker who only does well when there is existing wealth to extract. I think discussed about the transition of the U.S. economy from a wealth creating one (we were a net exporter up through the early 1970s) to a rent taking one where people did well for themselves because there was existing wealth to extract. About this time I shared an office with several people including Henry who was born and raised on mainland China. One afternoon we were asking Henry about growing up in China. Someone asked what Henry’s parents did, when Henry said that is mother was a doctor, the questioner responded with a comment to the effect that Henry grew up in an upper class family. Henry said that China was a poor country and most people had the same standard of living regardless of what they did. It hit me, of course, a doctor is a rent taker, only if people have money does a doctor do well.
Both John and Jack are engaged in rent taking livelihoods. They are very successful now because there is a middle class that has wealth (or more and more these days access to credit) to extract. As that middle class shrinks, the pie for all rent taking activity will be shrinking with it. To be fair, Jack has admitted that podcast revenue could shrink significantly in an increasingly technological future.
You can apply the rent taking concept to companies also. A company like Google is a rent taker, they offer free services but generate revenue from adds. Without a broad customer base with money to spend how does that affect Google?
We are used to the idea that we have a middle class that only needs to spend a small portion of their efforts on necessities and has plenty left over for other things. If that changes, our normal changes, expanding welfare programs just like minimum wage increases only changes the number that is considered poor, it doesn’t restore the lost wealth.
Of course the economy is only one factor that will affect the march of technology. There are several others, in the next post I’ll look at how energy might have an impact.
Hope this provided some food for thought.
Featured Resource – With each posted I’ll highlight a resource that I’ve found valuable.
The Survival Podcast – I first heard about The Survival Podcast while listening to a now defunct podcast over 5 years ago. I did a search, downloaded an episode and have been a regular listener ever since (about 1000 episodes) as well as a supporting member for several years. Jack Spirko typically puts out 5 podcasts that each run over hour per week. Jack is a good critical thinker who is able speak intelligently on a variety of topics. In addition to himself he sometimes interviews guests and has put together a group of experts in different fields that answer questions sent in by listeners. If you are willing to think, you’ll likely find value in The Survival Podcast.
Links – With each post I like to share some of the most useful blog posts, podcasts, videos and news items I’ve come across recently.