Will robots put us out of work?
Many people have been asking this question for a long time. The Regency-era British economist David Ricardo added to the third edition of his classic book “Principles of Political Economy”, published in 1821, a chapter entitled “On Machinery”, in which he attempted to show how technologies would affect the beginning of the industrial age. Revolution, at least initially, to the workers. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel “The Pianola” depicted a near-future America in which automation had wiped out most jobs.
As for the economy as a whole, the verdict is clear: so far, machines have not eliminated the need for labor. American employees are almost five times more productive than they were in the early postwar years, but there has been no upward trend in long-term unemployment.
Although this is the general reality, technology can eliminate certain types of jobs. In 1948, half a million Americans worked in the coal mines; By the turn of the 21st century, most of those jobs were gone, not because we stopped coal mining (the sharp decline in coal production, replaced first by natural gas and then by renewables, only started a few years ago (15 years), but because surface mining and top mining have made it possible to extract more coal with far fewer workers.
It is true that the jobs lost due to technological progress have generally been replaced by other jobs. But that doesn’t mean the process was easy. For some workers, personally, it is sometimes not easy to change jobs, especially if the new job is located elsewhere. Their skills may also be devalued, and even in some cases, such as coal, technological change can displace entire communities and uproot their way of life.
This type of disengagement, as I have already mentioned, has characterized modern societies for at least two centuries. However, what is happening right now may be different.
In the past, jobs replaced by technology often had elements of manual labor. Machines have replaced muscles. On the one hand, industrial robots have replaced routine work on assembly lines. On the other hand, there has been a growing demand for knowledge workers, a term coined by management expert Peter Drucker in 1959, which refers to people dedicated to solving non-repetitive problems. Many people, myself included, have said that we are increasingly becoming a knowledge economy.
What if machines could do much of the work that we have always considered knowledge work?
Last week, research firm OpenAI released (to much fanfare in tech circles) a program called ChatGPT, capable of engaging in conversations with all the semblance of natural language. You can ask questions or requests and get amazingly clear answers that even seem grounded. You can also do fun things; a colleague recently requested and received an analysis of secular stagnation in sonnet form. But for now, we will focus on the aspects that can be useful in economic terms.
ChatGPT is just the most recent example of a technology that seems capable of performing tasks that until not so long ago seemed to require the service of not just humans, but also people. humans with substantial formal education.
For example, machine translation from one language to another was once a joke; some readers may have heard an anecdote about the Russian-English translation program which, starting from the phrase “the spirit was willful, but the flesh was weak”, produced a translation which read: “the vodka was good , but the meat was spoiled. “Today, although translation programs do not yet produce high-quality literature, they are suitable for a variety of purposes. The same is true in many other fields.
You could say that what is often called artificial intelligence is not really intelligence. The truth is that the machines may be far from being truly creative or having great insight. The question we need to ask ourselves is how much of what we humans do is truly creative or requires great insight (indeed, we should ask ourselves how much of what is published in academic journals, a area that I know very well, meets these criteria). .
It is therefore possible that many knowledge jobs will be replaced.
What consequences will this have for the economy?
It is difficult to predict exactly how much AI will impact the demand for knowledge workers, as it will most likely vary from industry to industry and specific task to task. However, it is possible that, in some cases, AI and automation may be able to perform certain knowledge-based tasks more efficiently than humans, and potentially reduce the need for certain knowledge workers. This could include tasks such as data analysis, research and report writing. However, it should also be noted that AI and automation can create new job opportunities for knowledge workers, especially in areas related to the development and deployment of AI.
Okay, I didn’t write the paragraph you just read; ChatGPT wrote this, in response to the following question: “How will AI affect the demand for knowledge workers?” The detail that gives it away, at least in my opinion, is that I still resist using “impact” as a verb. Moreover, he did not explain exactly why we should generally expect this not to affect overall employment. Of course, I have to admit, it’s better than a lot of human beings would have written, including some people who think they’re very smart.
In the long run, productivity gains in knowledge industries, like gains in traditional industries in the past, will enrich society and improve our lives in general (unless Skynet kills us all). But in the long run we are all going to die, and even before that happens some of us may be unemployed or earning much less than we expect given the cost of our education.
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