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Thursday, January 26, 2017

How Efficiency Is Wiping Out the Middle Class/NY Times

This is an aspect of efficiency we had not contemplated.  What an unintended consequence of doing more with less.

However, we know the inherent risks in unleashing the power of AI.  That is one of the greatest challenges we face.  Can we control them or they control us, and what does do to life on this planet?

Self-driving truck technology for travel on interstate highways, based on artificial intelligence, is already technically feasible. Today, about five million drivers are employed in the industry. A 20 percent reduction in this work force over the next 15 years would equate to a million lost jobs. CreditTony Avelar/Associated Press

I am concerned that my childhood dreams may turn into a nightmare.

Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which I first saw in 1968 at seven years of age, sparked my fascination with computers and artificial intelligence, and I have since focused my academic studies and career pursuits within this area.

Fast-forward to today. I still believe that A.I. and automation can keep bringing good to the world. Its effects on middle-skill workers, in America’s industrial Midwest and elsewhere, however, worry me.

It has been suggested that the significant job loss and career destruction illuminated by the 2016 presidential election are a result of bad trade deals and corporate greed. I disagree. It’s much more likely a result of computers, including significant advances in A.I., which have allowed us to optimize our economy as never before. Already, they have permitted the global economy to function as if it were in your backyard. In the next decade, they will take over a vast array of routine work, in new industries, affecting even more workers.

The economic dislocations that computers and artificial intelligence have unleashed have been vastly underestimated. And we are just in the early days.

Think about commercial trucking in America. A.I.-based self-driving truck technology for travel on interstate highways is already technically feasible. Today, about five million drivers are employed in this industry. Even a 20 percent reduction in this work force over the next 15 years equates to a million lost jobs.

One of capitalism’s bedrock promises — one that dates back to Adam Smith — is that competition in the free market benefits society at large. Somewhere along the line, intoxication with efficiency caused us to lose sight of that principle at the expense of workers. Getting back to that promise will require policy changes and a renewal of forgotten values.

The raw, widespread anger we saw during the recent election — and the unexpected swing of several industrial states from reliably blue to red — reflects in large part the intense despair that many middle-skill workers feel as they see their families’ economic prospects fade and social conditions deteriorate.

Trade and immigration have become boogeymen, while technological advances and the huge efficiency gains they bring truly underpin the “hollowing out” of the middle class behind the scenes. Industrial automation has been displacing workers for decades — particularly those doing repetitive, lower-skill work.

Exponential gains in computing power, along with innovations in software, analytical techniques and the rise of Big Data, mean that many white-collar occupations are due for disruption by machines too. According to a 2013 study by two Oxford University professors, almost half of all jobs in the United States are susceptible to “computerization” over the coming decade or two.

With so many at risk of being pushed aside by Smith’s invisible hand, no one should be surprised if people decide to push back....


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