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A serious and growing problem with few easy solutions,
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This review is from: The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Paperback)
Martin Ford's book, The Lights in the Tunnel, is one of the latest in a progression of books addressing the economic and social problems partially attributable to rapidly advancing technology. I think his problem analysis is spot on. However, I think his proposed solutions are impractical and probably unworkable. The allocation (or misallocation) of wealth created by the prevailing economic system is an historical problem, one that is being exacerbated by the growing skill-bias of technology. But I can't imagine that any non-market-based wealth allocation scheme developed and administered by government would end up being other than a welfare program or a mechanism for rewarding political "favorites." Politics and cronyism would replace merit and effort. Government can't escape the specter of politics. Like it or not, the market imposes a reality and discipline that is simply not present in most government decision making.
All of the above said, the economic and resultant social problems associated with the increasing skill-bias of technology are serious and not likely to be a temporary phenomenon. Moreover, I don't believe that solutions will be easy to develop or implement. In my line of work (a psychologist working systems acquisition for the US Department of Defense), we began to encounter this problem more than 30 years ago with the widespread introduction of information technology into military systems. Back in those days, we referred to it as "skill creep," and understood that it had significant design, aptitude, and training implications. What came in on cat's paws back in the 1970s is now becoming a perfect storm across the economic spectrum. I should also note that in spite of 30 years of experience with it, DoD still struggles to cope with the skill-bias effect.
Based on 30 years of hands-on experience with this issue, I don't think the end result will be as extreme as Ford suggests in his book. Technology-dominated, "smart" machines will still require human support--and for the foreseeable future, "guidance." However, fewer people will be required to fill this role, and their aptitude, educational, and training requirements will be high. This is the essence of the skill-bias problem. More and more people will be displaced from the traditional job ladder and find themselves either unable to get on or only able to get on at a lower level in so-called service industries. Many proposed solutions will run up against what might be called the bell-curve problem (mental ability is not evenly distributed in the population); and serious, across-the-board educational reform will be a necessity. Most current proposals for educational reform do not fit my definition of serious. It should also be noted that most of our efforts in the area of job "retraining" have not been particularly successful. Many of the things we are going to be required to do to manage this problem will not be politically correct or will not fit into our prevailing political and social worldview.
I agree with Ford that current trends in job off-shoring likely are a temporary expedient. China, India, and other low-cost countries eventually will face the many of the same issues we in the developed world now face. It will be interesting to see how China fares in its Red Queen race between economic growth and the rising expectations of the hundreds of millions of non-participants in its economic miracle.
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Showing 11-20 of 74 posts in this discussion
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 7, 2012 12:21:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 7, 2012 12:25:09 PM PDT
>>>"My point is that in the extreme future of true thinking machines imagined by the author, there will not be anybody who is capable of producing value."
Thanks for your response. On the one hand, however, it seems questionable as to whether that 'point' - to which you refer - is ever likely to actually be reached but my question relates - given your scenario - as to whether, there will remain an elite few who will be able to extract economic rent from 'ownership' of the technology embodied within the "true thinking machines" to which you refer. In a sense, it is those individuals or corporations who will, once again, 'own the means of production', just as did the 'capitalists' of the industrial revolution, and they will reap their disproportionate rewards irrespective of the fact that they 'produce' nothing.
On the other hand, if you are envisaging a wholly autonomous class of 'thinking machines' - humanoids, of some description - what would be their status, vis a vis mere humans, and what incentive(s) might they have to make *our* lives (i.e. those of humankind's) any better? Just wondering whether you might also have speculated upon these sorts of questions...
Of course, I may be entirely misconceiving what you have in mind. In any case, however, rest assured that I intend to read this book in the very near future.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 7, 2012 12:31:59 PM PDT
>>>"I don't believe that thinking machines are due for quite awhile... I find them to be quite faster, but not an iota smarter than when started."
On a slightly different note, then, do you think/believe that the defeat of Garry Kasparov, by Deep Blue, represented any particular kind of 'watershed' moment in terms of AI?
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 7, 2012 12:36:51 PM PDT
Morgan P. Smith says:
I'd love to create a forum somewhere for this topic! I actually find it a brain teaser. I , by nature, like to take things to an extreme and see what it looks like. The 'thought' experiment. So, yes, the point I am referring to is pretty well science fiction and very hard to talk about in practical terms. However, the author is envisioning software that can write legal opinions, do creative engineering work, be a doctor etc. That's pretty extreme to me given the technology of today. And if it ever happens, I don't think anyone could accurately predict the effect on society. I agree that history does indicate that the few will always try to control the many and I won't argue with that!
Posted on Nov 15, 2012 3:25:26 PM PST
Ralph E. Dratman says:
We will soon have no choice but to move beyond the profit motive. The current system appears utterly incapable of generating enough (profitable!) hiring to keep a reasonable proportion of the population working and earning money.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) produced a lot of good infrastructure, as well as many wonderful enhancements to livability. Although WPA was not a creation of the free market, we nevertheless can use it as a model for future action.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 15, 2012 6:54:31 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 15, 2013 11:38:50 AM PST
George B. Purdy says:
The profit motive is alive and well in the San Francisco--San Jose area. There are so many information technology workers that there aren't enough apartments for them to live, and San Francisco is experimenting with micro-apartments, also called Twitter apartments. New York City is building up a high tech industry and they already have built some micro-apartments.
Don't get me wrong, the WPA was a very good thing, and we are in a severe recession. There are undoubtedly some more traditional businesses where the profit motive isn't working. And now some traditional box retailers are switching over to the Apple model, using I phones instead of cash registers etc. Also Amazon is having a huge effect. They're offering almost everything and trying to achieve one day delivery in many things by having more regional centers.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 22, 2012 5:32:06 AM PST
[Deleted by the author on Nov 22, 2012 5:34:07 AM PST]
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 17, 2013 5:34:34 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 17, 2013 5:50:28 AM PDT
S. Prewitt says:
Ralph E. Dratman,
I have no idea what "move beyond the profit motive" means. It sounds impossible to me, since competing for social status and desirable mates is built into human DNA.
A better choice would be to:
1. Eliminate taxes on production and savings, and replace them with a progressive tax on consumption. This would increase employment and production, decrease consumption of luxury goods, and increase the % of the population that is able to add value (i.e. production > consumption).
2. Eliminate government incentives (e.g. child tax credits) that reward poor people for having children; provide disincentives instead. Poor people tend to have children that grow up to be poor adults, because poor people tend to give their children both bad genes (e.g. low cognitive ability) and bad environments.
3. Provide subsidies to poor people in the most efficient manner possible. Generally this should be done by supplementing poor people's earned income with a negative income tax, and -- if necessary -- by providing below-minimum-wage government jobs.
These three steps would decrease the population of people with negative economic value (i.e. poor people), decrease human consumption of fossil fuels and other natural resources, reduce global warming, and help make human existence sustainable -- all without impeding our human desires to advance knowledge and technology and live secure, comfortable, purposeful lives.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 17, 2013 7:27:15 AM PDT
Ralph E. Dratman says:
S. Prewitt, your ideas sound good to me, but I am concerned that they will not do enough to address unemployment. The lack of economically useful jobs is going to hit people who are working now, but whose work will become unnecessary. Automation of office and professional work by computers and robots is going to put a lot more people out of work. We need to create a lot of jobs, but that is distasteful to politicians and the electorate.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 19, 2013 11:21:12 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 19, 2013 11:28:18 AM PDT
>>>"Eliminate government incentives (e.g. child tax credits) that reward poor people for having children; provide disincentives instead."
While I have some sympathy with the idea that people who can't afford to support children shouldn't - as responsible adults - have children, but many so-called adults are simply not responsible. I also disagree with the rank generalisation that payments to people who, nonetheless, go ahead and do so constitute a "reward". I think that is a dubious assumption, at best. People will still go ahead and have children because that's what people do - to use your words, it's "built into human DNA" and (I believe) the evidence would support the idea that, the less well educated, the more likely they are to do so. If this is accurate, it would imply that your policy prescriptions are misplaced, since (I suggest) a lack of education doesn't obviously predispose individuals towards a rational consideration of relevant incentive structures. You simply end-up penalizing them for their lack of education and/or cognitive ability - very Brave New World!
>>>"Poor people tend to have children that grow up to be poor adults, because poor people tend to give their children both bad genes (e.g. low cognitive ability) and bad environments."
Leaving aside, momentarily, the question of how we define 'poor', my suspicion is that this is dangerously circular:
1. Poor people shouldn't have kids because kids from poor homes tend to do badly.
2. Kids from poor homes tend to do badly, therefore, poor people shouldn't have kids.
When put like this, it implies an inevitability that there simply isn't any reason to pre-suppose. As such, you appear to beg the question as to exactly *why* it is that kids from poor homes tend to struggle. Again, it's very Brave New World!
So, do I wish that people were more responsible and not predisposed to make *economically* irrational decisions? Yes, of course.
>>>"...help make human existence sustainable -- all without impeding our human desires to advance knowledge and technology and live... purposeful lives."
But, for many people, having kids is central to leading a 'purposeful' life, even though they may need financial assistance to do so.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 19, 2013 11:40:37 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 19, 2013 12:05:53 PM PDT
>>>"We need to create a lot of jobs, but that is distasteful to politicians and the electorate."
Would be interested to know what you mean by this... it seems obvious to me that 'creating jobs' is not the issue, since that is easy. Surely, the question is whether there is work of sufficient productivity to merit a living wage, which is a different question. Would it really be better to make people dig holes, for example, in return for their food stamps, simply to assuage those fortunate enough to have well-paid employment yet who object to sharing the pie with those who aren't? I'm not saying that's where you're coming from - only that it's not obvious that 'creating jobs', per se, is the solution. So, correct me if I'm wrong but you seem to be suggesting that the State *should* act as the 'employer of last resort', but without addressing the productivity question. If the jobs were economically valuable/viable, most of them would already have been created and if the available work is not economically viable, why would we want to create more of it? Presumably, then, we're agreed that it's a lack of economic productivity that leads to work/jobs being lost in the first place?
So, to conclude, when you write that, "[w]e need to create a lot of jobs", presumably you are referring to the role of the State; certainly, the State can create jobs but, then, who decides whether the work is economically viable/productive, or not - what's the appropriate rate for digging holes? So, you might be right but is there any evidence, or reason to think, that there is (or will be) a significant reservoir of otherwise 'productive' work left undone/unrewarded simply because the State hasn't stepped-in to pay the wages?