CRF Blog

Our Automated Future

by Bill Hayes

In Our Automated Future for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews these books: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford, Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan, and The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson.

The “threat of a jobless future” is, of course, an old one, almost as old as technology. The first, rudimentary knitting machine, known as a “stocking frame,” was invented in the late sixteenth century by a clergyman named William Lee. Seeking a patent for his invention, Lee demonstrated the machine for Elizabeth I. Concerned about throwing hand-knitters out of work, she refused to grant one. In the early nineteenth century, a more sophisticated version of the stocking frame became the focus of the Luddites’ rage; in towns like Liversedge and Middleton, in northern England, textile mills were looted. Parliament responded by declaring “frame breaking” a capital offense, and the machines kept coming. Each new technology displaced a new cast of workers: first knitters, then farmers, then machinists. The world as we know it today is a product of these successive waves of displacement, and of the social and artistic movements they inspired: Romanticism, socialism, progressivism, Communism.

Meanwhile, the global economy kept growing, in large part because of the new machines. As one occupation vanished, another came into being. Employment migrated from farms and mills to factories and offices to cubicles and call centers.

Economic history suggests that this basic pattern will continue, and that the jobs eliminated by Watson and his ilk will be balanced by those created in enterprises yet to be imagined — but not without a good deal of suffering. If nearly half the occupations in the U.S. are “potentially automatable,” and if this could play out within “a decade or two,” then we are looking at economic disruption on an unparalleled scale. Picture the entire Industrial Revolution compressed into the life span of a beagle.

And that’s assuming history repeats itself. What if it doesn’t? What if the jobs of the future are also potentially automatable? [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “Unemployment and the Future of Jobs in America.” It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.