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Creative Disruption
Jobs, Robots, & AI Again – Part 3

By John F. McMullen

Even if one accepts the evidence presented in my previous two columns that ongoing innovation in technology will cause greater and greater disruption in the economy in general and employment in particular – and I do – we are, as mentioned in the last column, then faced with the enormous question of how we deal with these changes.
In addition to the obvious point that we don’t know exactly what the changes are and when they will occur – and expert opinion is all over the place on these issues, we are faced with much more than understanding and coping with the technological changes. To deal with the changes may well require major changes to our economic and political structures – and that will mean coping with major interest groups on every side – business, capital, labor, political parties, government, state, and municipal bureaucracies, etc.
In the previous two columns in this sub-series, I focused on and quote extensively two recent works – “Rework America’s” America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age,” a 2015 375-page book by a group of fifty forward thinkers and public intellectuals (business people, technologists, politicians, academics, and labor officialsincluding Zoe Baird, Sen. Cory Booker, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, MIT’s Erik Brynjofsson Andrew McAfee, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, AFL-CIO’s Elizabeth Shuler, Goldman Sachs’ Robert Zoellick, Esther Dyson, & John Seely Brown) and “A World Without Work” (The Atlantic, July / August 2015 issue), by Derek Thompson. I still recommend these works thoroughly.

In this, the wrap-up piece in the series, I devote the entire column to often conflicting opinions found in an 18 page section “Hi, Robot: Work and Life in the Age of Automation” in The July / August 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine.  
Introducing the issue, Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose provides background on the contributors – “Daniela Rus is one of the world’s leading roboticists and director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. She describes what robots are already doing now and what else they will be doing a few years down the road. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, also at MIT, explore whether automation and robots will progress to the point where humans become as economically obsolete as horses. Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, isn’t worried; he thinks the impact and significance of today’s emerging technologies are vastly overestimated.Illah Nourbakhsh, director of the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, explores the regulatory, legal, and existential challenges that an increasing reliance on robots will soon raise. And the European experts Nicolas Colin and Bruno Palier discuss the future of social policy in the digital age, arguing that a shift to the “flexicurity” at the heart of the Nordic model is more necessary than ever before.” – and explains some of the limitations of dealing with future unknown changes – “Something is clearly happening here, but we don’t know what it means. And by the time we do, authors and editors might well have been replaced by algorithms along with everybody else. Until then, we offer these dispatches from the frontlines of the robotics revolution.
In Daniela Rus’ piece, “The Robots Are Coming,” she focuses on the impact of robots to date and then moves into where we might be going—“ Yet the objective of robotics is not to replace humans by mechanizing and automating tasks; it is to find ways for machines to assist and collaborate with humans more effectively. Robots are better than humans at crunching numbers, lifting heavy objects, and, in certain contexts, moving with precision. Humans are better than robots at abstraction, generalization, and creative thinking, thanks to their ability to reason, draw from prior experience, and imagine. By working together, robots and humans can augment and complement each other’s skills.
She provides a vision of a future that I hadn’t really thought about before, one of ubiquitous robots – “Creating a world of pervasive, customized robots is a major challenge, but its scope is not unlike that of the problem computer scientists faced nearly three decades ago, when they dreamed of a world where computers would become integral parts of human societies. In the words of Mark Weiser, a chief scientist at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the 1990s, who is considered the father of so-called ubiquitous computing: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” Computers have already achieved that kind of ubiquity. In the future, robots will, too.”

This is a rosy view but it still leaves open the question of how will we get to this future and what changes in our way of life will be necessary to get there. Martin Wolf, in “Same as It Ever Was: Why the Techno-optimists Are Wrong,” frames the challenge somewhat differently and provides what many may see as radical responses. He first takes us through the impact of technological changes from the nineteenth century to the present and then writes “Inevitably, uncertainty is pervasive. Many believe that the impact of what is still to come could be huge. The economist Carl Benedikt Frey and the machine-learning expert Michael Osborne, both of Oxford University, have concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk from automation. In the nineteenth century, they argue, machines replaced artisans and benefited unskilled labor. In the twentieth century, computers replaced middle-income jobs, creating a polarized labor market.
In Wolf’s view, then the problem is not simply an integration of new technology into our world as it has successfully be done in the past but also to do it while holding our social fabric together and benefiting more than just a few. He writes “So how might we respond now to these imagined futures?
“First, new technologies bring good and bad. We must believe we can shape the good and manage the bad.
“Second, we must understand that education is not a magic wand. One reason is that we do not know what skills will be demanded three decades hence. Also, if Frey and Osborne are right, so many low- to middle-skilled jobs are at risk that it may already be too late for anybody much over 18 and for many children. Finally, even if the demand for creative, entrepreneurial, and high-level knowledge services were to grow on the required scale, which is highly unlikely, turning us all into the happy few is surely a fantasy.
“Third, we will have to reconsider leisure. For a long time, the wealthiest lived a life of leisure at the expense of the toiling masses. The rise of intelligent machines would make it possible for many more people to live such lives without exploiting others. Today’s triumphant puritanism finds such idleness abhorrent. Well then, let people enjoy themselves busily. What else is the true goal of the vast increases in prosperity we have created?
“Fourth, we may need to redistribute income and wealth on a large scale. Such redistribution could take the form of a basic income for every adult, together with funding for education and training at any stage in a person’s life. In this way, the potential for a more enjoyable life might become a reality. The revenue could come from taxes on bads (pollution, for example) or on rents (including land and, above all, intellectual property). Property rights are a social creation. The idea that a small minority should overwhelmingly benefit from new technologies should be reconsidered. It would be possible, for example, for the state to obtain an automatic share of the income from the intellectual property it protects.
“Fifth, if labor shedding does accelerate, it will be essential to ensure that demand for labor expands in tandem with the rise in potential supply. If we succeed, many of the worries over a lack of jobs will fade away. Given the failure to achieve this in the past seven years, that may well not happen. But we could do better if we wanted to.”
Rather heady recommendations – and some such as the redistribution of wealth will not go down easily – Them that has usually fights tooth and nail to keep it – not only money but position, influence, power, etc. Wolf has an answer for that -- “It is also possible that the ultimate result might be a tiny minority of huge winners and a vast number of losers. But such an outcome would be a choice, not a destiny. Techno-feudalism is unnecessary. Above all, technology itself does not dictate the outcomes. Economic and political institutions do. If the ones we have do not give the results we want, we will need to change them.”

Creative Disruption is a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changers normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.  

It is difficult in limited space to explore in proper detail the breadth of Wolf’s eight page article and obviously I didn’t even get into the pieces by Brynjolfsson & McAfee (“Will Humans Go the Way of Horses: Labor in the Second Machine Age”), Noubakhsn (“The Coming Robot Dystopia: All Too Inhuman”), and Colin & Palier (“The Next Safety Net: Social Policy for a Digital Age”). I certainly commend these to the readers’ attention (two articles per month may be read for free at the Foreign Affairs website,, after registration). It may not be easy to get through the uncertainties of the technological future but, the more we know, the better we should be able to cope with its vagaries.
John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at, and his books are available on Amazon.
© 2015 John F. McMullen