Top positive review
Machines, Not Human Beings Will Become the Default Choice to Perform Most Activities
Reviewed in the United States on March 22, 2020
Daniel Susskind reminds his readers that automation either replaces or complements human beings. In other words, automation not only affects the amount of available work, but also the nature of that work. The ongoing impact of increasing automation on both the agriculture and manufacturing sectors in advanced economies since the first industrial revolution can give us a glimpse of what will be in store for the service sector.
Both agriculture and manufacturing now employ far less workers than they once did. Most of the resulting ‘labor surplus’ has gradually migrated first from agriculture to manufacturing and subsequently from manufacturing to the sector of services. Furthermore, what the remaining workers employed in these two fast-evolving sectors do is increasingly different from what their predecessors did. In addition, these workers continuously have to upgrade their skills to remain employed in both sectors.
The service sector that now employs most people in advanced economies will gradually share a fate similar to the one that is applicable to the agriculture and manufacturing sectors under the pressure of further automation. Mr. Susskind repeatedly stresses that too many people hold a simplistic view of both automation and frictional, structural technological unemployment: Machines cannot be taught to perform “non-routine” tasks, because people struggle to explain how they perform them. The author clearly demonstrates that machines process information and data differently and more efficiently than most human beings do. None of these machines have gained an ‘artificial general intelligence’. These machines display an ‘artificial narrow intelligence.’
Here follow a few examples for illustration purposes:
1) DeepMind has created a program that can diagnose over fifty eye diseases with an error rate of only 5.5%. It performs as well as the best clinical experts out there.
2) JP Morgan has developed a system that reviews commercial loan agreements, resulting in a saving of about 360,000 hours of human lawyers’ time.
3) IBM’s Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at playing chess.
Mr. Susskind invites human beings to start thinking about the residual tasks that will remain for them:
1) Tasks that prove impossible to automate.
2) Tasks that are possible but unprofitable to automate.
3) Tasks that are both possible and profitable to automate but remain restricted to human beings due to regulatory or cultural barriers that societies build around them.
This gradual substitution will oblige governments in advanced economies to address three key, related issues: Inequality, power, and purpose. What will these technologically unemployed people do in a winner-take-all environment that further increases income / wealth inequality? How will these (former or would be) workers be compensated if traditional jobs are out of reach for them? What will the purpose of the welfare state be in a world where machines take over many tasks that were previously deemed out of reach for automation? Will unscrupulous populists mobilize this new ‘proletariat’ for their own nefarious purposes either domestically and/or across borders?
The diminishing employment rate among lower-qualified men say in the U.S. reflects a multi-dimensional mismatch: 1) Skills, 2) identity, and 3) place. Up-skilling has clearly failed to address this mismatch, despite the claims of too many out-of-touch policymakers. The lack of gainful employment among these men makes them both unproductive and potentially dangerous to the stability of the society at large.
In a world with less paid work, taxation of workers, capital, and big businesses will be a critical mechanism in addressing to some extent the increasing income / wealth inequality. A conditional basic income (CBI) will be the only palatable solution to the haves. The universal basic income (UBI) smells too much of a free lunch for moochers. The CBI will allow the ‘non-traditional’ workers to find new meaning and purpose in life, while providing more stability and security to the taxed ‘traditional’ workers, capital, and big businesses. Sustenance and entertainment provided by government to appease public discontent has not lost its potency since Antiquity.
In summary, nothing in life can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and the relentless process of machine-driven task encroachment.