“…Most of us will have less and less money to buy the dazzling array of products and services spawned by blockbuster technologies - because those same technologies will be supplanting our jobs and driving down our pay.” – Robert Reicher (March 16, 2015).
The latest industrial revolution is afoot. Artificial intelligence (AI) is its defining ingredient. Some think it will bring superabundance. Some think it will bring lasting job losses and lower pay. Some think it will bring both. Neither outcome is plausible.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov has a new book out called Deep Thinking. Losing to the computer “Deep Blue” gave Kasparov a close encounter with a member of the race of “intelligent machines.” Despite this experience he tends to see promise rather than threat in their growing power. I do too, but not quite in the same way. This is what he wrote in the Wall Street Journal (April 14, 2017) in an essay adapted from his book:
Machines that replace physical labour have allowed us to focus more on what makes us human: our minds. Intelligent machines will continue that process, taking over more menial aspects of cognition and elevating our mental lives towards creativity, curiosity, beauty and joy.
After leaving school in the northwest of England, my second and third jobs were at factories producing, respectively, biscuits and cars. Most of those employed where on the factory floor. It is fair to say from my experience that they had generally left school at the first opportunity. Let us suppose for a moment that robots took over their jobs. My guess is that they would want another factory job rather than the delights of poetry readings and philosophical meanderings. In saying this, I am not in the least putting these working people down. I would feel exactly the same way.
It is instructive to take a backward leap to 1930 and to John Maynard Keynes looking forward to a bountiful future of superabundance in his essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” He predicted:
We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us to pluck the hour of the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.
Notice the similarity. Neither Kasparov nor Keynes is talking about most people. They are talking about themselves and people like them. I suggest, without rancour, that most people would not welcome a future of enforced idleness and leisure, however much opportunity it gave for mental contemplation.
Fortunately, this brave new world of idleness and leisure is a chimera. It will never come to pass. The latest round of automation and technological upheaval will not result in a land of plenty co-existing with entrenched unemployment. As Keynes’ prediction proved to be wide of the mark, so will be Kasparov’s. Free market economics and human nature are the keys to understanding the effect of yet another industrial revolution, since the first began in the second half of the eighteenth century.
The fourth revolution
Klaus Schwab, the execute chairman of the World Economic Forum, neatly puts the latest industrial revolution into historical context. (“The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Foreign Affairs, December 2015). He captions the first revolution as steam power mechanising production; the second as electric power facilitating mass production; and the third as electronics and information technology automating production. Obviously there was a lot more to each of these revolutions and different historians frame and time them somewhat differently. But, for my purpose, this not so much matters. It is the fourth that matters.
The fourth industrial revolution, already underway, Schwab describes as the digital revolution. He sees “artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing ... disrupting almost every industry in every country.” He, along with others, sees this revolution bringing profound breakthroughs and at a pace without historical precedent.