Thursday, July 20, 2017

Is AI the Final Frontier for Human "Jobs"?

Ever since the industrial revolution everybody has been terrified about the End of the Job. And sometimes the terror extended to violence, as in the textile machine wreckers inspired by Ned Ludd.

And of course there was real hardship; there must be in any change, because change means that some people's plans and assumptions about the world will be dashed to pieces, and others will be pleasantly surprised.

Back before the industrial revolution something like 90 percent of people were working on farms. In the US the number is now something like 3 percent. That transition did not unwind in a small, X percent per year, fashion. It never does. It occurred in horrific farm crises, like the crisis in the late 19th century that spawned rural populism on the Great Plains. And of course there was the Dust Bowl that sent millions of farmers to California. Then there is Zola's La Terre all about  the French peasant getting zeroed out by grain from the Great Plains.

Today, everyone is talking about the AI and the robots that will take the jobs of retail workers and truck drivers. And so on. As in "The Mother of All Disruptions" by Kay S. Hymowitz.

Jobs are disappearing or will disappear not just in retail, but in legal services, oh yes, and journalism. And some people are worried about the US going Japan and giving up on sex and babies.

But I think it is best to admit that we just have no clue what is coming, and just get on with it. Let us stop worrying about just which jobs will disappear and why, and develop a culture that accepts change and flexibility in employment.

For instance, at the Hampton Inn in Willow Grove here in the NE Philly suburbs the free breakfast, what I call the bunfight, is run by a kindly black woman. This morning she was sitting at a computer in the lobby ordering food for tomorrow. She seems to have another, health-care related job.

Isn't that some kind of a clue? Here's a woman doing a wait-staff job and a supervisor job and an order-clerk job, and she is computer literate and she has another job where she cares for people in a health care facility.

In a large sense, we are just in another "de-skilling" era. When people were carpenters and skilled artisans and cooks they spent years developing manual skills. In the old days scribes spent years developing handwriting skills. But then came the machine and the printing press, and advanced manual skills were not longer required. The same is also true in many technology fields. Used to be that an engineer had to develop math skills and knowledge to do "calcs," computing stresses and beam sizes. No longer, I suspect, because all the calculating and the sizing gets done on finite-element analysis programs.

The best understanding of work, in my view, comes from longshoreman Eric Hoffer. As I wrote in "A Critique of Social Mechanice," for Hoffer the industrial revolution was an incomplete revolution, so
man had to use his fellow men as a stopgap for inventiveness. He had to yoke men, women and children with iron and steam... There was no escape for the mass of people from the ravenous maws of factories and mines.

Coal miners did not get released from the yoke until strip-mining with drag-line excavators started in the 1950s. But Hoffer is optimistic about the future. It is true, he writes, that factories used to be “agencies of dehumanization.”

But we of the present know that communion with machines does not blunt our sensibilities or stifle our individuality. We know that machines can be as temperamental and willful as any living thing. The proficient mechanic is an alert and intuitive human being. On the waterfront one can see how the ability to make a fork lift or a winch do one’s bidding with precision and finesse generates a peculiar exhilaration, so that the skilled lift driver and winch driver are as a rule of good cheer, and work as if at play.
Could that be the future? That work becomes more like play as we all learn how to operate the automation so that the hard work and the strength and the manual dexterity is done by machines and we humans get on with the social cooperation, rather than doing the grunt work?

Who knows. Nobody knows.

But I would argue that the most important thing is for people to be flexible and adjust themselves to the demands of the market.

Because resistance to the market only makes things worse.

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