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Sunday, April 30, 2017


Replaced by robots or replaced by UBI?

by Tom Sullivan

The changing nature of work and whether (or when) we all get replaced by robots gets talked about around the office. I don't have a lot of money, but as Liam Neeson says in Taken, what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. That makes me somewhat harder to replace with a machine. Forget the computers and the engineering and science. What makes me still employable at this stage of life is so much of what I do is more art than science. I can teach a kid right out of engineering school how to run the software in a week, but she/he won't know what they hell she/he is doing with it. Decades in, I'm still learning what to do with it. Plus, since it is a particular set of skills, when they need me, they need me. What I know isn't just available on any street corner. So far.

The series "Robot-proof Jobs" from Marketplace Radio has been examining the impact of automation and algorithms in the workplace. Other than catering to investors or Trump promising to bring back jobs that aren't coming back, what kind of planning is the government doing to get ahead of the economic displacement?

Thomas Kalil, until this year deputy director for technology and innovation of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, asks host David Brancaccio [Timestamp 26:00]: "The R&D budget of the Department of Defense is around 73 billion dollars. Do you have any guesses as to what the Department of Labor research budget is? ... Four million dollars."

Nobody at the Department of Labor is looking at how we could take advances in artificial intelligence technology and turn that into a way to reduce the time for a non-college educated worker to gain a skill that would give him a lift into the middle class.

Brancaccio asks, "Why isn't the government investing more massively in new ways to help people jump onto this high-tech jobs bandwagon?"

It's not a matter of money. It's a matter of will.

The Navy got the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to look into how to accelerate learning for new recruits. Their program found that after 4-5 months of specialized, computer-based training, new recruits were outperforming veterans with 7-10 years of experience. Kalil explains:

So, for example, 30 million Americans are reading at the third grade level or below. But you don't see a huge effort on the part of the private sector to solve that problem. We have not thought seriously about how we would harness science, technology, and innovation to advance economic and social mobility and create more ladders of opportunity. In part, because the private sector is under-investing because they may not see an immediate opportunity. And the agencies that are responsible for worrying about these issues, like the Department of Labor or like HUD, we've never said, hey, you should have a research arm that could do for economic and social mobility what DARPA does for the military or what NIH does for biomedical research.
Don't hold your breath. The private sector isn't interested and government spending on its people is a cost to be minimized, not an investment in future growth.

David Atkins wrote a lot here about Universal Basic Income (UBI) and what a shifting economy might bring. A forum at CUNY on Trade, Jobs, and Inequality discussed UBI and trade-related topics. A computer(?) transcription of the discussion here with all its inaccuracies demonstrates how far machines have to go. The discussion wandered into the social meaning of income. Having a stronger social safety net is not enough, says Paul Krugman, "[T]hink about the fact that France has a welfare state, a social safety net, that is beyond the wildest dreams of American leftists. Nonetheless le Pen made it into the second round of the election." So there is more going on in France than economic insecurity, he didn't have to say.

Economist David Autor of MIT addressed recent impacts of trade and automation. The "China shock" is basically over, he says [Timestamp 52:00]:
But we ought to learn some lessons about this. One is about our social safety net. As emphasized, trade adjustment assistance policy is woefully inadequate. But a deeper point is, jobs have their own value. You cannot make someone whole... What if you said, "Hey, Paul, we are going to take away your identity. You are no longer an esteemed economist. You are just retired". Would you say: "Oh, great! I have all this money and I do not have to do anything!"? Of course not. For most people, work is central to organize who they are, how they perceive themselves, how others perceive them, their social identity. A better social safety net is not sufficient. We would like to actually have good jobs.
It's not a discussion that will end, probably ever, but what struck me was Kalil's observation that we'll spend research dollars to improve military performance, but not on our civilian population. So long as the prevailing ethos is a social Darwninist one that sees struggling Americans as being unworthy of help, they will receive neither government investment in their futures, nor a safety net to cushion them against it. Trump played to some of their concerns and left them behind as soon as he got from them what he wanted: a win.