Notes: Working, Earning, and Learning In the Age of Intelligent Machines

The key seems to me to build intelligent machines that will assist workers in labor-intensive industries, rather than build intelligent machines that will eliminate workers in capital-intensive industries. The first is a clear win. The second can be a major loss if the things made in capital-intensive industries are close enough substitutes for the products of labor-intensive industries to greatly drop their value.

But what I have to say so far is limited.

It is simply made up of: Five Disconnected Points:

  1. Cast your mind back to 1999. All of this was then viewed not as a threat but as an opportunity. Few things can turn a perceived threat into a graspable opportunity like a high-pressure economy with a tight job market and rising wages. Few things can turn a real opportunity into a phantom threat like a low-pressure economy, where jobs are scarce and wage stagnant because of the failure of macro economic policy.

  2. Those historical cases in which technological progress has been genuinely immiserizing have been relatively few. They have been confined to situations in which technological progress takes the form of greatly amplifying labor productivity in capital-intensive occupations. Those then shed labor massively, as those tasks in which human beings act like robots—filling in the gaps that machines cannot yet do—vanish. But at the same time technological progress must do next to nothing to equip workers in labor-intensive occupations with better tools to assist them. Thus the canonical case is the 19th century handloom weaving industry in Britain and India. That suggests a focus on building robots to serve as tools and assistants for workers in labor-intensive industries, as opposed to further mechanizing and thus replacing workers in capital-intensive industries.

  3. Let me endorse the observation that for the past 200 years the mechanization of manufacturing has to a great degree involved treating humans as if they were robots. We can do better. At least, we hope we can do better.

  4. Let me try to satisfy Barry’s demand for less abstraction and also endorse Nils’s emphasis on human customization by asking you to cast your minds back to the days of Metropolis, Henry Ford, and Brave New World. Henry Ford wanted to satisfy real human needs in the cheapest and most effective fashion by taking massive, mammoth, and total advantage of all possible economies of scale. You can have a car in any color you want: as long as it is black. You can have whatever kind of car you want: as long as it is a Model T. You can wear any clothes you want: as long as they are identical blue overalls. You can play any sport you want: as long as it is Centrifugal Bumble Puppy. That was not the world people wanted. Alfred P. Sloan and General Motors drank Henry Ford’s milkshake by finding a sweet spot, in which you sold everybody mass produced Chevy parts in different, near personalized configurations. We can argue about whether people should value such human touch salesmanship and customization—whether it is a cognitive behavioral mistake stemming from our origin as hunter gatherers seeking to gather the most useful objects. But the fact is we do value such human touch customization. All the evidence suggests that it makes us very happy. That is a very large set of potential labor-intensive occupation that will last for a very long time.

  5. Never forget that back in the environment of evolutionary adaptation we were sociable toolmaking hunter-gatherers—constantly interacting with the complex environment where we would choose and modify objects to advance our purposes—in which we turned ourselves into an anthology intelligence under a geas to learn as much as possible, and immediately tell it to—gossip about it with—everybody else. With the coming of first the Agrarian and then the Industrial Age our jobs became overwhelming boring. Only humans, with our brains being supercomputers that fit into a bread box and draw only 50 watts of power, could be the necessary microcontrollers for animals and machines necessary for first Agrarian Age and then Industrial Age production. But those jobs vastly underutilized the human brain. Do not overromanticize looking at the hind end of a mule or tightening bolt number six on every object coming down the assembly line for four hours without a break.

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April 13, 2017


Brad DeLong
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