Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Why Robots Won't Make Most Of Us Unemployed

Two articles came to my attention today; one in The Daily Mail Fail forewarning of robots bringing an end to half of today's jobs by 2025, and one in The Guardian lamenting an apparent decrease in social mobility. I’ve put them both together in a blog post because the error of reasoning that underlies their contentions is more or less the same in both cases – failure to understand the elasticity of future changes.

Let’s start with the Mail’s fear of enhanced technology bringing an end to half of today's jobs by 2025. It’s certainly true that augmentations in technology will mean an end to many roles currently undertaken by humans (one need only think of all the jobs we used to do that are now being done by machines). But that doesn’t necessarily mean what the doomsayers believe it will mean – you see, as history shows quite clearly, humans have the capacity, imagination and skill to do other things.

Imagine if you were having this conversation with a journalist at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and he told you how fearful he was that these new farming, printing and transportation machines would bring a gradual end to humans’ ability to work. You'd simply have to tell him that a lot changed after the Industrial Revolution, and that those changes saw more people on the planet than ever before, and more jobs than ever before. The key reason why there probably is nothing to worry about is that what constitutes ‘work’ (where work means earning a living) changes with growing societies and increasing technological advancements.

In the early 19th century you wouldn’t have been able to imagine how people could earn a living, say, making films or television programs, doing stand up comedy, providing complex domestic litigation, designing cars, driving taxis, flying planes, building speedboats, producing Kindles, playing football, working at a bowling alley, advertising on websites, fixing telephone lines or analysing DNA or quantum mechanics.

The same is true of this generation – the future ‘work’ that lies ahead is currently bound by technological limitations and unawareness of the activities that are currently not jobs but will be one day. As technology increases and those robots do things we used to do, we go on to do things we never used to do. In other words, we lose jobs thanks to technology (and make our lives a little easier in the process) and we create jobs thanks to ingenuity. That the Mail (and it turns out, The Guardian and The Telegraph) have been so short-sighted in their panic is poor on their part.

I now turn to The Guardian's take on the apparent decrease in social mobility. Dr John Goldthorpe, collaborator in the analysis, said:

“For the first time in a long time, we have got a generation coming through education and into the jobs market whose chances of social advancement are not better than their parents, they are worse.”

In illustrative terms, a similar thing is happening to the above, except the effects are being seen here in the labour market. That is to say, as job-types differ, we see different flows in social mobility too. Once upon a time, owning lots of land was the key to having the most social mobility. Now, it is not so important. There is a decrease in social mobility in some quarters of society, but they are offset by increases in social mobility in other areas of the labour market.

Moreover, let us not forget another important fact that was omitted in the article - that general prosperity and well-being are about more than just earnings and career prospects. A proper analysis must factor in all sorts of other pertinent things like improvements in technology, services, scientific capabilities, access to knowledge, health and medicine, worldwide communication, and so forth, that give this generation so many huge advantages that their parents and grandparents never had.

All this does, though, lead me on to what I think is the most important issue related to the above – that we have a generation of young people for whom upward social mobility may be like a passing cloud they can never catch up with. The spectres highlighted in the articles above are not so much a worry for the reasons the writers claimed – they are a worry because there are a large number of young people who lack the basic literacy, numeracy, social awareness, family support, mental health, hope and aspiration to be a force in the job market, or in many cases, get a foot on the ladder at all.

Social mobility, like natural selection in biological evolution, is a strong genetic factor in human progression. People at a young age look to climb the social ladder, increasing their skills and earnings along the way - which means that people with better abilities are generally (not always, but often) in higher positions.

Thanks to what were at the time up and coming advancements, like stream powered cotton mills, coal mining, increased agricultural machinery and major increases in the production of metals, textiles, and many other manufactured goods, there were thousands of job opportunities emerging for people at the incipient stages of the Industrial Revolution - creating a new middle class and transferring lots of wealth from the richer faction of society down to those now taking part in industry. As this continued, 19th century social mobility rose fairly consistently throughout all the UK population, as opportunity to work begat further opportunities to work. While it was far from all rosy, there were the embryonic foundations for what is now a very prosperous modern Britain. Similar developments are occurring throughout the world in countries that are currently as poor as Britain was a century or so ago.

There is currently a generation of young disenfranchised people that may not have the kind of leg-up that their 19th century counterparts had. Yes, it's true that in terms of quality of life and access to things, the current crop have it astronomically better than those before them - but a labour market that continually manages to replace more menial human tasks with machine capability may well struggle to find jobs for many of today and tomorrow's youth who lack the basic literacy, numeracy, social awareness, family support, mental health, hope and aspiration to climb the ladder. And if that is the case - it is there that the State will have to show its mettle and give them much more of a helping hand than is currently the case.
* Photo courtesy of 3dsquare.com