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Is Technology Eroding Employment? 544

Posted by timothy
from the ban-farm-equipment-ask-me-why dept.
First time accepted submitter Idontpostmuch writes "The idea that technology cannot cause unemployment has long been taken as a simple fact of economics. Lately, some economists have been changing their tune. MIT research scientist Andrew Mcaffee writes, 'As computers and robots get more and more powerful while simultaneously getting cheaper and more widespread this phenomenon spreads, to the point where economically rational employers prefer buying more technology over hiring more workers. In other words, they prefer capital over labor. This preference affects both wages and job volumes. And the situation will only accelerate as robots and computers learn to do more and more, and to take over jobs that we currently think of not as "routine," but as requiring a lot of skill and/or education.'" Note: Certainly not all economists agree "that technology cannot cause unemployment," especially in the short term. From a certain perspective, displacing labor is a, if not the, central advantage of technology in general.
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Is Technology Eroding Employment?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 13, 2012 @03:46PM (#42279219)

    Author, play writer, actor, hooker, circus performer, archaeologist, and any anything else that requires creativity would be a safe bet for a career for the foreseeable future.

  • by mcnster (2043720) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @03:48PM (#42279233)
    Instead of facilitating full employment with calls of "jobs, jobs, jobs!", the goal should be 100% total UNemployment using technology (specifically self-repairing robots or "cybermation"). A very low percentage of humans (say, 1% of the world population) can act as overseers on rotating teams of volunteers who do the remaining creative and design work that AI-guided machines cannot. The rest of the population can take the day off to pursue their own interests....
  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tmosley (996283) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @03:56PM (#42279409)
    Consider the fact that your government confiscates ever greater amounts of your pay and savings via inflation. There is a reason that real income peaked while hours worked per family bottomed in 1971.

    The sad truth is that you are competing for scarce goods with money that has been stolen from you and given to mostly non-productive workers (think bankers, politicians, and their cronies).
  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Synerg1y (2169962) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @03:57PM (#42279439)
    Funny thing is, the industrial revolution created most of the jobs we're now trying to automate.
  • by AdamWill (604569) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:02PM (#42279527) Homepage

    Wasn't eroding employment supposed to be the *point* of technology? The biggest problem with this debate seems to be that everyone is assuming a lack of employment is a _bad_ thing.

    If we can, at a relatively trivial cost, build machines to replace all menial drudgery, why is this a problem? Isn't it The Glorious Future?

    We need to adjust our social, economic and political systems for the new reality, of course, but that's hardly impossible. It's not like we haven't changed them before. 150 years ago domestic service was one of the largest employment categories and only those who employed the domestics got the vote, after all. (Thinking of the U.K. here).

    Hell, looked at from a certain perspective, we're already halfway *through* this change. 150 years ago a large majority of the population of any 'civilized' country had to work - whether actual paid employment, or some form of domestic labour - probably 72+ hours a week to give the country as a whole a standard of living quite a long way below what we enjoy today. I know there are still substantial numbers of people in some 'civilized' countries who have to work two jobs to keep the wolf from the door, but still, there's a hell of a lot more people who get by perfectly well on 40 hour working weeks and then don't have to hand wash their clothes or dishes when they get home.

    Look at it that way and technology has _already_ reduced the amount of actual labour humans have to do by, say, 50%, and the world does not appear to have ended. What's terrible about getting rid of the other 50%?

  • by Maximum Prophet (716608) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:02PM (#42279539)
    Many science fiction authors has said "If this continues..." and studied what would happen if automation took all the jobs. Some are utopian and some are distopian.

    Interestingly, the economist Paul Krugman was influenced by an early Heinlein story about a goverment that had to actually destroy wealth in order to keep the economy flowing.

    The trick for individuals is to survive the transition from a work based economy to an automated economy. I suspect that wealth will flow to people who own land and things, as there is less and less oportunity to create.

    Alternately, the RIAA, MPAA, and **AA, will take over, buy the elections, and we'll all be slaves to the managers that control the creative class.
  • by mangu (126918) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:07PM (#42279611)

    Until today, corporations are ruled by managers who are good at manipulating people. The CEO is the guy who has the ability to get a lot of people working together to reach a goal.

    In the future, when more and more things are done by machines, people skills will not matter.

    The rulers of the future will be people who are good at manipulating machines, they will be programmers.

  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Twinbee (767046) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:08PM (#42279625) Homepage
    I've said before, it would be a great experiment to force a state or two in the US to switch to 5 work hours a day (or 3 days a week instead of 5). I bet the overall happiness of the people in that state would multiply, without much detriment if any to their economy.
  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Interesting)

    by readin (838620) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:14PM (#42279731)
    In the 19 century, much manual work was replaced, but the human mind was still required for many tasks - including much factory and farm labor. But is every single human being employable? Is every single human being capable of contributing more to the economy than they demand in food, clothing, housing, waste disposal, etc.?

    There are some people who clearly aren't. A comatose patient of course does not contribute. What about paralyzed person who isn't smart enough to do any mental work (at least not any that couldn't be performed more cheaply by a computer)? As computers become more and more sophisticated, we'll be able to move more and more people into the "can't pull their own weight when compared to a computer" category.

    We already know machines can outperform humans at most jobs that require strength. If the process is repetitive then the machines don't even need operators. For delicate work we also find that machines outperform humans. Basically physical labor is no longer needed from humans except when combined with a need for human intelligence or artistry What happens when computers are able to out-think humans? I haven't an artistic bone in my body and mass media has made it so we don't need many artists anyway. What happens when even artistry is done better by computers?
  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dywolf (2673597) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:17PM (#42279771)

    I dont work for the feeling of earning what I have.
    I work for money. Because I need money. To buy things like clothes, food, pay rent.
    If I didnt I would have to spend all my time creating all those things myself.

    I dont know who taught you that rubbish, but he needs slapped.
    I dont know if you noticed or not, but subsistance living is hard, and sucks by and large compared to modern society.

  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:52PM (#42280317) Homepage

    We're seeing the return of the Iron Law of Wages [wikipedia.org]: real wages always tend, in the long run, toward the minimum wage necessary to sustain the life of the worker. That had been the case for most of history. For most of the 20th century, the Iron Law of Wages was viewed by economists as being obsolete. That may have just been a historical anomaly in capitalism. The period during which wages substantially exceeded survival level in the US was the period in which labor unions had enough power to push wages up. That's over.

    "Machines should think, people should work". Humans just do the dumb manipulation jobs that still cost more to do with robots. Kiva Robotics video: "Training for a human picker on the system takes a minute or so." [kivasystems.com] The end result is that most new jobs pay about $10.25 per hour. It's now cheaper to put the smarts in the software rather than train skilled workers. Computers are so cheap, and copying software is even cheaper.

    As retail goes online, whole sectors of the economy disappear, buildings go vacant, and jobs go away forever. One (1) new indoor mall has been built in the US in the last decade. (We don't count the New Jersey Meadowlands debacle; they're not open after a decade and the roof collapsed.) Many, many malls are dead. [deadmalls.com] First, order processing and payment went online. Then warehouse operation and order fulfillment. Ordered from Staples, the Gap, Walgreens, Saks Fifth Avenue, Toys "R" Us, Follett, Timberland, Diapers.com, or Dillard's? Mobile robots did most of the work. [kivasystems.com] Amazon just bought Kiva Robotics. Coming up next, Google same-day delivery service. [logisticsviewpoints.com] (Not with automatic truck driving. Yet.)

    We have an economic system which optimizes for lowest costs, including labor costs. It's working as designed. Do you want fries with that?

  • by DahGhostfacedFiddlah (470393) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:03PM (#42280497) Homepage

    The last time this topic came up, someone posted a link to the short story Manna [marshallbrain.com]. I found it well worth the read.

    The story explores two vastly different ways of greeting a near-total automation of labour.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:05PM (#42280529)

    Solution to all problems:

    Mincome [wikipedia.org]

    Course, that means the upper caste 1% will make slightly less money, so it's orders of magnitude more likely that Mincome will never happen, and the non-working will starve in a gutter and die. Not like it's any skin off the upper caste's back.

  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tehcyder (746570) on Friday December 14, 2012 @07:43AM (#42285827) Journal

    I came from a former communist state to witness the self-destruction of the so-called free world. Check when the west started sliding to good old "shot the strikers" days of capitalism. Yhea, when the wall collapsed. NO need to pretend anymore that the little person matters. No fear from workers revolution - this is "red" and it failed , right?

    That is very interesting. While there was the old West/East divide, the West had to keep making concessions to democracy and the rights of the majority in order to maintain the moral highground over the East.

    Now the divide has gone, it's all a race to the bottom.

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