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A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond Audio CD – Audiobook, January 14, 2020
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Ultimately it's a good book for anyone who isn't well aware of the impact automation has had so far and needs a 101, but is largely a recap for anyone who's been following the issue already.
This book is well written and is of a wider scope than the other Susskind books. In the next five to ten years, not only will a lot of jobs be rendered otiose by technology, but also by the Coronavirus. In many cases, many jobs that remain will have altered, if not in substance, certainly in the way they are done. So, in that sense, ‘A World Without Work’ is not revolutionary or revelatory, although Susskind likes to think so. He says at p. 183 that ‘To deal with technological unemployment, we will need what I call a conditional basic income – CBI for short’. But CBI is not his creation. It has been the subject of many economic debates long before this book. See the paper on ‘(Un)conditional Basic Income’ by Jan Van Cauwnberghe, Niklas Mannfolk, Jan Klesla, January 2018, for example.
Nonetheless, the book discusses interesting issues and although the philosophical underpinnings are there, the idea of work and meaning has a lot more to be discussed, and picking the odd bits to emphasise the importance of technology is inadequate. One area that requires serious consideration, and not sufficiently touched on in this book, is the political question, how will society support the masses who are out of work? Susskind partially discusses this in the last five pages of the book, but they relate to what he claims to be the CBI solution that ‘he proposed’.
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.
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Susskind follows David Autor in distinguishing labour substituting and labour complementing aspects of automation. In fact, it’s the same phenomenon of increased productivity, only differentiated as to whether in early periods, increased output is derived from the same labour, or in more developed economies, decreased labour produces the same output, either due to satiation or to ecological constraints.
His analysis of automation technology requires a more complete typology than his ‘purist/pragmatic’ divide. A useful hierarchy might be
• Mimicry of human techniques
• Simple full enumeration techniques, but by powerful machine processors
• Deterministic algorithms, such as Kantorovich’s linear programming solution
• One-pass heuristic algorithms, such as Clarke and Wright’s vehicle scheduling algorithm
• Iterative adaptive heuristic algorithms, the basis of current AI
These are not ‘pragmatic’ techniques, but the implementation of some form of logic. Susskind doesn’t refer to the extensive literature on philosophy of technology, which might suggest that deductive logic is objective. All approaches therefore explore this same objective logic, and cannot be distinguished as ‘pure’ or ‘pragmatic’. The same literature is more nuanced on the interaction of human agency and technology objectivity than Susskind is in airily declaring himself to be ‘not a technological determinist’ (p9). Our choices may very well be very tightly constrained, if not totally determined.
Susskind’s wide-ranging claims need deeper challenge. His claim that technology has created more bank employment misses the fact that 3,303 bank branches closed in the UK from 2015 to 2019 (p27). He makes the contradictory complaints that US big business fails to pay tax in Europe, and then that it does pay tax in Europe! (p178-9).
But he’s right that education to high skilled work is not a solution, and that it’s not the number of jobs, but personal incomes and aggregate macroeconomic wage which is the worry. The trail he doesn’t follow is that both lead to debt, and debt leads to crisis and austerity.
His discussion of basic income (UBI) is unfortunately shallow. He worries about a UBI work disincentive, when it is clear that current welfare systems with their huge benefit withdrawal rates are major work disincentives compared to UBI. He underrates the gain in dignity, the increase in take-up, and the reduction in administrative cost of UBI’s elimination of means testing. And he proposes no alternative method to deliver income to citizens and aggregate demand to the economy as automation reduces both.
Membership of a UBI scheme would certainly need to be defined, but Susskind’s conditional ‘CBI’ based on ‘contribution’ is philosophically incorrect and practically unacceptable. The whole point is that technology can at least partially make goods and services available providentially, like air or rainfall. No labour contribution is therefore required to produce them, and none should be required to freely consume them. The practical implementation of his conditionality of contribution is horrendous, requiring an Orwellian ‘Political Power Oversight Authority…to watch over individuals as citizens in a society’ (p212,214).
UBI should be exactly as defined - universal and unconditional. It can be financed by sovereign money, and would avoid the economic crisis and austerity created by technology-led reduction in earned incomes, which have then been supplemented by household and government debt.
The picture that he offers is, in fact, along the same lines as Tyler Cowen’s *Average is Over*, but seems to me to bring out even more strongly the significance of the way in which IT has moved away from trying to simulate and improve upon human problem-solving, to tackling problems ab anitio. (Here, I found the parallel that he drew with the way in which natural selection can simulate design, particularly interesting: see his discussion of Alpha Go Zero.) This, together with the explosion of cheap computational power, has the consequence that it is difficult to delimit tasks which are not likely to come under challenge from IT and robotics, and, in particular, that the value of all kinds of human capital is diminished.
Susskind’s treatment of the problems seemed to me excellent. When he turned to responses, he seemed to me much less impressive. I would have thought that more could be said about the kinds of tasks that, currently and in the immediate future, might still hold out the prospects of commanding a stream of income from acquired human capital. His response for those who could not make a living – a form of conditional basic income, combined with mandatory state-administered duties – seemed to me ill-thought-out. It was not clear why he should think that the state should administer any such thing (his trust in the competence of the state is touching, while his view about the motivations and procedures of the state seemed oddly and uncharacteristically – given the superb referencing in the rest of the book – uninformed). His ideas about the taxation of capital seemed to me to be offered, uncharacteristically, without real discussion of their likely economic consequences. While his ideas about intervention for the sake of ‘politics’ in a highly expanded sense, seemed to me to duck the question of who would be doing this, on the basis of what values and concerns.
All told, however, the book seems to me very good as a whole, and the first parts of it excellent and very thought-provoking. One particularly striking issue, which is touched upon only very briefly in the context of immigration, is the way in which, should Susskind’s picture of how things might well develop be correct (and early on he quotes Popper against the idea that these things are pre-determined), is that it would seem, increasingly, against the interests of the majority of a society to welcome either immigrants (unless they have very particular skills), or, indeed, large families! The book should, I think, give rise to a lot of useful thought and discussion.
Ik ben belazerd door ThriftBooks DE.
Whilst other books might view the rise of technology as a threat Susskind states he is optimistic for the future, citing how it has been responsible for growing the 'Global economic pie'. However he goes on to state that technological unemployment arises as a result of progress - whilst the economic pie is growing inequality, power and purpose will also grow. Encroaching automation can be traced back through the Spinning Jenny and the rise of 'Luddites', a well-known insult for those who oppose change even today. Susskind states that such advances didn't lead to mass unemployment via a 'Substituting Force' as feared thanks to the 'Complementing Force' - machines increased production and as a result tasks that could not be automated were required in much greater quantities. He breaks this force down into three effects: the 'Productivity Effect', the 'Bigger Pie Effect' and the 'Changing Pie Effect', each convincingly explained and discussed in detail in a later chapter on 'Structural Technological Unemployment'.
However he develops his explanation that whilst much progress has been due to the exponential ability of computers in some cases the substituting force has affected some groups of workers more than others, and that economists have identified a skill-biased tilt - something Susskind discusses in detail in a chapter on 'Technology and Inequality'. Highly skilled and low skilled workers have benefited, the former because they are 'Captains of Industry' or possess highly sought-after skills; the latter because they perform work that either cannot be automated or isn't economical to do so. However since the 1980's with the rise of the personal computer the 'middle-skilled' have suffered - a phenomena known as 'Polarisation'. The displacement of blue collar workers by automated production lines can be seen clearly in the way cars dating back to Henry Ford were made on a production line but still hand built, whereas today some production lines are almost entirely run by robots. That encroachment has affected white collar jobs too - think of the disappearance of the typing pool when personal computers came in to the removal of tellers in banks, largely replaced by phone apps as people bank via their mobile phones rather than enter a branch. Susskind argues that the mundane aspects of many jobs have been automated, giving those left the more interesting work to perform - in the bank example tellers aren't processing routine transactions as often, instead they are dealing face-to-face with customers' differing issues, concentrating on personal service levels and, in theory, enriching the experience for both employee and customer.
The other major aspect of the first section of the book is a discussion on those affected - something in a perfect view of the world can be addressed by education and retraining. Susskind discusses 'Frictional Technological Unemployment' - those that prevent the unemployed moving into available jobs. He splits the phenomenon into an examination of 'The Skills Mismatch', where some just might not have the aptitude to retrain in some fields, 'The Identity Mismatch' where the work available doesn't sit easily with the person's sense of self, and 'The Place Mismatch' where suitable work exists but workers might be unwilling or unable due to family circumstances to simply up sticks and move. Indeed Susskind returns in detail to the limits of education and retraining in a chapter headed 'Education and its Limits', with plenty of great insight into what, how and when teaching takes place and what its usefulness is - something the UK Department for Education and many headmasters would be well advised to absorb as it is a radically different view that has much merit. It's interesting to see however that Susskind believes that in the 21st Century the balance between these two forces is changing, but at differing rates in different parts of both the economy and the world due partly to the relative costs of labour, partly due to some parts of the economy lending themselves to increased automation better than others. He sounds a warning bell that the increase of AI capabilities will effectively mean that mankind will come to a point where they will no longer be able to keep up in tasks that lend themselves to ever increasing automation, and no amount of retraining will suffice.
Susskind writes in an accessible manner that draws the reader in - I found it difficult to put the book down at times as the story told is always enthralling, always well argued - engrossing in fact. That accessibility however is backed up with academic rigour with well over 35 pages of notes showing the sources Susskind has used when making assertions, as well as a large bibliography too. I also like that Susskind includes frequent charts within the text which clearly back up the trends he is establishing in his text, with the conclusions he draws from each never a stretch, always appearing more than reasonable and rational interpretations of the data presented. This is not a dry tome, far from it, it is a well told tale looking at the issues from many perspectives which never seems as though it is repeating itself to hammer home the points the author is making, yet that rigour in researching issues from different viewpoints gives a thorough critical perspective on how technology has partially or completely displaced some occupations yet enriched others whilst creating completely new forms of employment that couldn't have been dreamed of just 10 year earlier. What I particularly like is that technology and automation aren't seen as good or bad in extremis, Susskind joins the dots convincingly to show the shades of grey too.
I like that Susskind doesn't just detail the problems encroaching technology brings, he remains positive throughout and comes up with a road map in the latter sections of the book of how to deal with the issue of the increasing capability of AI. These changes address the thorny issue of 'fair' taxation, increasing the impact and scope of a welfare state and policies to bring meaning and purpose to lives without work. These sections, looking to an uncertain future are, by definition, more theoretical but they at least give a potential way forward as the pace of change grows. Susskind has written an excellent, thought-provoking book that I've enjoyed reading thoroughly.
I'm fairly sure that, despite the "This time it will be different" strapline of this book many of its predictions will not come true, or if they do come true will do so in a way that is different to those envisaged. This is not to say that I disagree with the central point here that AI systems will usurp many areas of activity and endeavour that are currently the preserve of smart people - and of course every day tasks only humans currently do (driving cars etc) - I'm sure that AI systems will take over a lot of things. However, I think that - like the Horizon programme - it's a lot easier to predict the effects of the technology than it is the ways in which those effects will affect society. It is axiomatic that change creates opportunity and the changes created by AI will undoubtedly do that.
A lot of the book talks about how we, society (for want of a better phrase) should respond to the incoming rush of AI systems which is already well underway and which will definitely intensify in the next 20-30 years. Like some interviewees in the 1977 Horizon show, the author urges that we should look at how we change education and the world of work to best deal with these impacts to meet a world where there might perhaps be no work for most and where people have everything done for them to the extent that they become vegetables. The book makes some very good and valid arguments about why things will be different this time around - but I can't help thinking that as this future unfolds we will find ourselves - as we did through the 80s and 90s - finding that the changes create new opportunities and types of work and play which we can't yet even imagine.
So, the book is very thought provocative but if I (in my turn!) were being provocative I might say it was a little alarmist! I think that looking back on it in 10 years, we will be able to say "Ah but, then we didn't know about...... which changed the debate completely".
Well worth a read though - entertaining, makes its arguments clearly and literately.
The author takes a sensible approach to the subject and a pragmatic view of likely economic futures - but struggles to breakaway from the mindset that paid employment is necessary for everyone at all times. He touches briefly upon historical instances of leisure classes but does not investigate too deeply the concept of occupation versus paid employment and finding fulfilment without tying it to economics and personal wealth generation. What the author does focus upon is very well researched and informative, but the less in-depth nature of the final couple of chapters and those more dramatic alternatives to current capitalist trends leaves the book feeling almost unfinished or ripe for a follow up to take that final step to tie it all together.
It begins with a kind of "brief history" of previous shifts in the economy bought about through technological innovation (think trucks instead of horses), and also an explanation of how our economy as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon to the human race. We have moved past an economy that works to satisfy the needs, but rather into one that also seeks to satisfy the wants, and aims for constant economical growth.
Then the book seeks to educate us in many possible relevant topics for the future such as AI, big tech, the welfare state, etc. If this kind of topic on technology and how it can be used to fairly ensure everyone has a better quality of life then this is a good read.
It is a truly interesting read, a solid platform for discussion and a compilation of arguments that make this if not a well-polished thesis, then at least a springboard for a timely discussion.
Interesting read but allow for artistic license and be prepared to allow yourself to treat it as a basis for discussion rather than a well polished final thesis.