technological unemployment

This New York Times Magazine article about an American returning home after living abroad is mostly fluff, but it did contain these few interesting paragraphs on technological unemployment.

One day, I drove down Highway 101 to Silicon Valley to meet Reid Hoffman, a partner at the venture-capital firm Greylock and the chairman of LinkedIn, the professional-social-networking company, which was then in the process of being sold to Microsoft for $26.2 billion. Hoffman founded LinkedIn the same year I left for Beijing; now he was a billionaire. He is politically active, having supported and advised Obama and raised money for and donated money to Hillary Clinton. I mentioned how the election had become a referendum of sorts on globalization and trade, yet there had been little discussion about the next big earthquake — artificial intelligence, or the approaching world of self-driving cars, smartphones that can diagnose a melanoma and much more. Globalization may have ravaged blue-collar America, but artificial intelligence could cut through the white-collar professions in much the same way.

Hoffman said the reactions to artificial intelligence range from utopian to dystopian. The utopians predict huge productivity gains and rapid advances in medicine, genetic sequencing, fighting climate change and other areas. The dystopians predict a “Robocalypse” in which machines supplant people and, possibly, threaten humanity itself. “My point of view,” he said, “is that it is a massive transformation and does really impact the future of humanity, but that we can steer it more toward utopia rather than dystopia with intelligence and diligence.”

Either way, another major economic shift is coming, perhaps sooner than people realize. Hoffman said that many of the jobs in today’s economy will change fundamentally during the next 20 years. On the same day I met with Hoffman, Uber announced a pilot program to test self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh. It also bought a company developing self-driving trucks. “We have to make sure that we don’t have a massive imbalance of society by which you have a small number of people that own the robots and everyone else is scrambling,” he said.

If the current political upheaval in the U.S. and elsewhere is caused by the onset of technological unemployment, we could truly be in trouble, because not only is it going to get worse, it is being completely misdiagnosed. When an illness is misdiagnosed, it can be treated in ineffective or even completely counterproductive ways. If underemployment caused by technological progress is the root of our current problems, the solutions have to lie in providing people with the skills they need to work with the new technology, helping people to build an ownership stake in the technology, lowering barriers to startups and innovators, and providing a safety net for those still left behind through no fault of their own. Instead, we are talking about subsidizing outdated technologies and industries, blaming mythical internal and external enemies for our problems, and removing the limited safety net we have fought so hard to build up until now.

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