Rise of the Robots (part 3)

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Because Ford’s book is focused on the loss of human jobs to robots, he has next to nothing to say about job creation. If, however, a higher level of intelligence enables human beings to do things that machines cannot, as Ford himself admits, maybe we can do more of those things as we turn over the narrower thinking tasks to the machines.

The personalized service frontier

If there is any new frontier in job creation that can escape the rise of the robots, I think it would be in the realm of personalized services, the least routine and predictable things we do. In fact, when a service professional is helping a client, the problem of predictability is compounded.  If you’re a legal professional, artificial intelligence systems that process information about laws, cases and legal documents will be a great help. But lawyers still have to apply the law to the unique circumstances of the client’s case, and that is a more creative task.

Similarly, thousands of students can listen to the same lecture online, but they need a creative teacher to engage with their particular thought processes as they struggle to reconcile new ideas with what they already think. That’s why many educators are talking about “flipping the classroom”–letting students gather more information online while changing the classroom from a lecture hall into a setting for more creative collaboration. If all that students know how to do is take in lectures and cough up the material for the test, they will be at risk of being replaced by a machine. We can give in to the machines, or accept the invitation to take education to a new level that requires smaller classes and more teachers.

In so many areas, people need more personalized services than they are getting. In addition to teachers and financial planners, they need mental health services, legal services, job training, drug treatment programs, child care, and of course affordable health care. The question is whether these services will remain scarce and expensive, or whether we can expand the market for them in the information economy.

Making services more economical

We can be fairly sure that many menial service jobs will eventually be more economically performed by robots than by humans. The days of supermarket checkout clerks are numbered. The problem for aspiring professors, counselors, financial planners, and so forth is a little different. It is not so much that robots will replace them, but that too few people will be able to afford their services, or that they themselves will not be able to afford the price of admission to their desired profession.

I can think of several ways that the information revolution could help. As automation lowers the cost of producing goods and routine services, people can spend a larger portion of their income on personalized services. And information technology should also save labor in the personalized services themselves, bringing costs down there as well. A lawyer assisted by artificial intelligence shouldn’t have to spend as long preparing a case. I know that as a financial planner assisted by sophisticated software, I was able to prepare a financial plan in a very reasonable amount of time and at a very modest cost. My plans always had a human element, with personalized commentary as well as machine-generated tables and charts, but the human-machine collaboration made the service more affordable for my clients.

The technology was also very affordable for me. I did have to rely on a financial software company that no doubt made more money than I did. Ford emphasizes the centralization of information capital, a situation in which a few companies controlling software and Big Data can dominate markets while employing very few workers. But there is another side to that. Information can be duplicated at a very low marginal cost. Software development may be costly, but as the cost is spread over more and more copies, the unit cost keeps shrinking. An aspiring financial planner or other service provider can subscribe to software support for a very modest annual fee. Such easy access to information capital should make it easier to create personalized service jobs.

A big price of admission to many service professions is the cost of education. Education is such a public good that its cost should be widely spread throughout society. Making students go heavily into debt in order to learn what they need in order to be contributing members of society is not a very sensible policy. Ford agrees, and he hopes that new technologies can reduce the cost of instruction. He seems less interested in expanding higher education, since he expects people at all levels of education to have trouble finding jobs. I am more interested in such expansion, because I believe that the jobs we can create will usually require more education than the jobs we destroy.

The role of the public sector

If we agree that education is a public good whose cost should be widely spread throughout society, that suggests a major role for the public sphere in making it more accessible and affordable. The same logic could be extended to other services. Services that contribute to the general health, education and welfare of the population constitute public goods that are worthy of some public funding. Not only do such services create jobs in themselves, but they can help people build their human capital and meet the demands of the advanced economy, keeping them one step ahead of the robots.

Ford isn’t very supportive of this kind of public funding. Here’s what he has to say about elder-care:

The main problem with elder-care robots as they exist today is that they really don’t do a whole lot….The realization of an affordable, multitasking elder-care robot that can autonomously assist people who are almost completely dependent on others probably remains far in the future….It might seem reasonable to expect that the looming shortage of nursing home workers and home health aids will, to a significant extent, offset any technology-driven job losses that occur in other sectors of the economy….[But] by the time the majority of older people reach the point where they need personal, daily assistance, relatively few are likely to have the private means to hire home health aids, even if the wages for these jobs continue to be very low. As a result, these will probably be quasi-government jobs funded by programs like Medicare or Medicaid and will therefore be viewed as more of a problem than a solution.

So here we have a valuable service that isn’t being provided either by robots or enough human workers, and yet Ford rejects the expenditure of more public money to fund it. Once again, that reveals his narrow focus on his recommended basic income guarantee to support consumption. In effect, he would rather have government pay people not to work than to work. We can find more work for robots, but not create more jobs for humans.

Public funding requires some form of taxation. Conservatives often oppose higher taxes, especially on the wealthy, on the grounds that they will interfere with investments by the “job creators” in economic growth. If capital should become as self-serving as Ford expects, with businesses increasing profits by destroying jobs rather than creating them, that argument should become less convincing. One wonders how high unemployment will have to go before people turn to the public sector for job creation, as they did in the 1930s.

A broader moral argument

Ford is concerned about growing inequality, and he does make the argument that as taxpayers who have supported basic technological research, people have a legitimate claim on technology’s benefits. I agree, but I would also ground popular rights in a more basic principle, the dignity of human labor. Let the machines do the work they can do better than people can. But respect people as more than just purchasers of what the machines provide. Help people be as creative as they can be as producers–paid and unpaid–as well as consumers.

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