Why the robot boost is yet to arrive

Tim Harford – the Undercover Economist

One of the problems with predicting the future is working out when it’s going to happen. That’s not quite as silly as it sounds: there is an easy assumption that the impact of change follows closely on the change itself, but that assumption is often wrong. That in turn can lead to the equally wrong assumption that because there has been limited impact in the short term, the impact will be equally limited in the long term. As Robert Solow famously put it in 1987, ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.’ In this post, Tim Harford updates the thought from computers to robots. The robot takeover isn’t obviously consistent with high employment and low productivity growth, but that is what we can currently observe. The conclusion – and the resolution of the paradox is disarmingly simple, if rather frustrating: wait and see.

Don’t believe the hype: work, robots, history

Michael Weatherburn – Resolution Foundation

This post introduces a longer paper which takes the idea of understanding the future by reflecting on the past to a new level. The central argument is that digital technologies have been influencing and shaping the industry sectors it examines for a long time, and that that experience strongly suggests that the more dramatic current forecasts about the impact of technology on work are overblown.

The paper’s strengths come from its historical perspective – and, unusually for this topic, from being written by a historian. It is very good on the underlying trends driving changing patterns of work and service delivery and distinguishing them from the visible emanations of them in web services. It does though sweep a lot of things together under the general heading of ‘the internet’ in a way which doesn’t always add to understanding – the transformation of global logistics driven by ERP systems is very different from the creation of the gig economy in both cause and effect.

The paper is less good in providing strong enough support for its main conclusion to justifying making it the report’s title. It is true that the impacts of previous technology-driven disruptions have been slower and less dramatic to manifest themselves than contemporary hype expected. But the fact that hype is premature does not indicate that the underlying change is insubstantial – the railway mania of the 1840s was not a sign that the impact of railways had peaked. It is also worth considering seriously whether this time it’s different – not because it necessarily is, but because the fact that it hasn’t been in the past is a reason to be cautious, not a reason to be dismissive.

The invention of jobs

Stian Westlake

It’s often tempting – because it’s easy – to think that the way things currently are is the necessary and natural way of their being. That can be a useful and pragmatic assumption. Until it isn’t.

What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages

James Manyika, Susan Lund, Michael Chui, Jacques Bughin, Jonathan Woetzel, Parul Batra, Ryan Ko, and Saurabh Sanghvi – McKinsey

Much is being written about how robots and automation either will or won’t displace lots of employment, often with breathless excitement as a substitute for thoughtful analysis. This report brings a more measured approach, in every sense. Its focus, as seems increasingly sensible, is less on the end point of change (which can’t be known in any case) and much more on the pace and direction of change. It also pays as much attention to the jobs which will be created as to those which might be displaced, which must be right as it is the net effect which really matters. The conclusion is that up to 2030, jobs will be created in sufficient number to offset the effects of automation – but that that overall stability may involve 375 million people around the world and 6.6 million in the UK being displaced from their current occupation, in part because an estimated 8 or 9% of jobs by 2030 being in occupations which haven’t existed before.

This is when robots will start beating humans at every task

Chris Weller – World Economic Forum

This is a beguiling timeline which has won a fair bit of attention for itself. It’s challenging stuff, particularly the point around 2060 when “all human tasks” will apparently be capable of being done by machines. But drawing an apparently precise timeline such as this obscures two massive sources of uncertainty. The first is the implication that people working on artificial intelligence have expertise in predicting the future of artificial intelligence. Their track record suggests that that is far from the case: like nuclear fusion, full blown AI has been twenty years in the future for decades (and the study underlying this short article strongly implies, though without ever acknowledging, that the results are as much driven by social context as by technical precision). The second is the implication that the nature of human tasks has been understood, and thus that we have some idea of what the automation of all human tasks might actually mean. There are some huge issues barely understood about that (though also something of a no true Scotsman argument – something is AI until it is achieved, at which point it is merely automation). Even if the details can be challenged, though, the trend looks clear: more activities will be more automated – and that has some critical implications, regardless of whether we choose to see it as beating humans.

The Age of Automation

Benedict Dellot and Fabian Wallace-Stephens – the RSA

This new report from the RSA takes a more balanced view than most on the impact of automation on work, and particularly on low-skill work. This is neither a story of a displaced workforce condemned to penury as the robots take over, nor one of a blithe assumption that everything will muddle through. Much of the underlying analysis is now fairly familiar – certainly to regular readers here – what is distinctive and valuable is the focus on the quality as well as the quantity of work and the ways in which automation can enhance human work rather than displace it

Impressively, the authors have put some of their approach into practice by partly automating the process of reading it. Traditional manual readers can work through the full eighty page report; automation maximalists need only skim the eight key takeaways; and those with intermediate ambitions can focus on extracts from the main report summarising the main arguments or focusing on the impact of automation on the quality of work.

To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now

How do changing patterns of employment affect not just the nature of people’s work in the short term, but their ability to progress and to have careers? This article attempts an answer to that question by looking at two tech giants of different generations, Kodak and Apple, and their very different employment models. It is unashamedly a powerful story rather than a deep analysis – but interesting read as an illustration of Simon Caulkin’s recent article, which covers closely related ground in a very different way.

Neil Irwin – New York Times

Technology doesn’t kill jobs: executives and companies do

The fact that new technologies can destroy jobs (even if they can enable the creation of others) is almost universally discussed as a problem for the workers concerned. That doesn’t always mean that those affected are abandoned – there is recognition that governments have a role in retraining or providing other forms of support, up to and perhaps including a universal basic income – but it does mean that the component of the wider system which is expected to deal with the negative consequences is the affected worker. In the modern corporate era focused above all on shareholder value, companies necessarily do everything they can to minimise employment costs. But that is a political choice, not a force of nature (as a report from the White House recognised last year).

That framing of the issue is so deep rooted as to be almost invisible – this post brings it to light in order to challenge its assumptions: what can be done and should be done to sustain the demand for labour, and what implications does that have for the role and purpose of employing organisations?

Simon Caulkin

Technology and people: The great job-creating machine

The impact of technology on employment often focuses on the jobs at risk of being automated out of existence, not at the ones which might be created, either because of new technical possibilities, or as a consequence of increasing wealth and disposable income. This research looks at how patterns of employment have changed by tracking census data on occupations from 1871 to 2011 and concludes, not altogether surprisingly that their distribution has steadily changed, with patterns ranging from a steady decline in agricultural labourers and launderers, to telephonists rising to a peak in 1971 before declining by 2011 to the level of 1911 – and accountants, hairdressers and bar staff showing relentless growth, which is either the triumph of the service economy or an alarming step towards the reality of the B Ark.

Critically though, the conclusions are that although technological unemployment is very real, the stock of employment is not fixed or limited by technology, and that there is every reason to expect that new – and often unforeseen – jobs will continue to be created, as they always have been.

Link to the full report below – there was also a good summary of it published in the Guardian.

Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole – Deloitte

Chill: Robots Won’t Take All Our Jobs

All the signs that you would expect to see in the labour market and wider economy if robots were displacing jobs are absent: productivity is not growing rapidly, labour turnover is not going up, and employment remains high.

That’s not to say, of course, that automation isn’t happening – and Surowiecki is careful not to say it – or that what has happened up to now is an infallible guide to what will happen in the future. But this article does contribute to the recognition that technological progress, the social and economic adoption of that progress, and the wider impact of that adoption are all very different things, potentially with very significant lags between them. That perspective is now coming through more strongly elsewhere as well – which should mean that the debate can be more balanced.

James Surowiecki – Wired

The human factor: what will really determine the pace of automation?

Technology is rarely just about technology, a fact often overlooked in slightly hysterical predictions about the impact of AI on jobs. This is a good summary of social, political and financial reasons why the path to universal automation might not be as straightforward as it is often portrayed. And that is to say nothing of the reasons to think that the technology itself may have intrinsic limitations as a substitute for humans. 

Fabian Wallace-Stephens – the RSA

The Pop-Up Employer: Build a Team, Do the Job, Say Goodbye

Organisations exist to get things done. They are necessary because they solve problems ranging from communication and co-ordination to moral hazard. But in principle, if we could find other ways of solving those problems, we wouldn’t need organisations any more – at least of the traditional kind. This article gives some examples of where that is starting to happen, by assembling not just project teams, but project organisations, created to meet a specific need and disbanded as soon as that need is met.

The examples given show that it can work, but they don’t and can’t show that it can scale, and there may be good reasons to think that it can’t. But that doesn’t stop the idea being a good challenge, particularly to those in organisations which don’t tend to think about organisational change in quite those terms.

Noam Scheiber – New York Times

Creating the Conditions for Serendipitous Conversations

This is a great post on two entirely different levels. It’s a reading (and listening and watching) list of material on the future of work, with a dozen or so interesting annotated links to follow.

But it’s also an approach to improving the quality of conversations, creating the space to think differently and more creatively, using the shared material to support a richer conversation, based on the insight that “a library of inspiration develops through a lifetime of experiences”. That’s an approach which it feels well worth borrowing – whether on the future of work or any other subject.

Bromford Lab

21st Century Automation: Is This Time Truly Different?

Neatly sidestepping the question of whether technology will only destroy jobs or, as every past cycle of technical innovation has done, will also create new (and perhaps currently unimaginable) ones, this post focuses instead on when such a shift can be expected to occur. The period of disruption between the old and the new is important even if it were possible to be confident that the new would be a better place. For much of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution brought poverty and reduced life expectancy for many – only towards its end did the subsequent century of rising living standards begin. Are we at similar risk of facing serious, and potentially long drawn out, disruption to social order?

Ryan Hagemann and Nicholas Ciuffo – Niskanen Center

Cutting the Gordian Knot of Technological Unemployment with Unconditional Basic Income

This is a powerfully argued article on the strategic case for a UBI – in this case, with a very strong stress on being unconditional. The problem of technological unemployment can be solved only by breaking the strong assumption that income should be linked to work. Doing that is hard because we have been so strongly conditioned to seeing them as inexorably linked – but breaking that link creates new social and economic possibilities and increases overall welfare levels, as well as creating the conditions in which people are far more strongly empowered to exercise their basic human rights. The conclusion is quite a radical one, but the real question is less whether it is right or wrong, and much more whether the starting analysis is well founded.

Scott Santens – Medium

Google Jobs will break 90 years of welfare policy – here’s what the policy response should be

Jobs, we keep being told, will increasingly be automated. But if, in the modern welfare system, claimants are required to demonstrate that they are, in effect, working full time at looking for work, what happens when looking for work is just another job which gets automated?

Last week Google announced a new Google for Jobs service which isn’t quite that, but which is clearly a step in that direction, and it’s a safe bet that there will be more steps to come. This post reflects on the implications of that for people who are seeking to use their time productively while looking for paid work – and for the welfare systems which support them as they are doing so.

Richard Pope – Memespring

Good Gigs: A fairer future for the UK’s gig economy

The growing gig economy is often associated with low wages and exploitation, with the flexibility it offers advantaging the employer rather than the worker (and as one of the speakers at the recent RSA event said, flexibility is fine, so long as it works in both directions). Some of that is to do with ambiguities in legal status which haven’t kept pace with the changing labour market, but some of it is about power imbalances – another reflection of the changing relationship between technology and work. This report attempts to answer the question of what a good gig economy would look like, with government given the primary role for creating the conditions for success.

Brhmie Balaram, Josie Warden, Fabian Wallace-Stephens – RSA

What should we do about job automation?

A thirty minute discussion on job automation. Building on Michael Osborne’s work on the levels of job automation, Ryan Avent paints a dystopian future where, paradoxically, humans are forced into low skill and low wage work – and Judy Wajcman points out that the impact of technology is not inexorably deterministic, but is a function of social and political choices. As in previous industrial revolutions, there may be many losers in the transition, even if in the long run, society as a whole is better off, bringing a clear need to avoid technology driving social and political division. The goal seems obvious – that automation should lessen the burdens of work as far as possible – but the means of getting there requires many assumptions to be challenged and reset.

Matthew Taylor, Michael Osborne, Ryan Avent, Judy Wajcman – RSA Radio

The jobs of the future – and two skills you need to get them

If, as the World Economic Forum has argued, five million jobs are about to be automated out of existence, it becomes important to know which skills will be less in demand and which align with future jobs growth. This article argues that there are two important dimensions – the ‘soft’ skills, such as sharing and negotiation, and mathematical ability, and that it is the combination of the two which will lead to greatest success.

Simon Torkington – World Economic Forum