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Technology revolution Vinod Khosia has managed* to say a lot in a few words about the consequences of “the next technology revolution.” Let me just list some points for discussion:

1. That revolution comes when it’s finally possible to construct “systems with judgment and decision-making capability more sophisticated and nuanced than trained human judgment.” And it’s coming soon. We can already see that “machine learning, sometimes called big data or artificial intelligence, is making rapid progress in complex decision-making.” The result: increased productivity, abundance, and income disparity.

2. Income disparity will increase (and jobs—especially good jobs—will become fewer) because “With less need for human labor or judgment, labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to machine learning technology.” As Tyler Cowen says, those who can readily work with genius machines will get much richer, while most ordinary jobs–being more scripted and tied to machines—will be either disappear or devolve in the direction of mere subsistence.

3. “In past economic history, each technology revolution—while replacing some jobs—has created more new types of job opportunities and productivity improvements, but this time could be different… Historically, technology augmented and amplified human capability, which increased the productivity of human labor… However, if machine learning technologies become superior in both intelligence and the knowledge required for a particular job, human employees may be rendered unnecessary or in the very least, they will be in far less demand and command lower pay.” Creative destruction may continue to produce jobless (or worse than jobless) recoveries. We will have less and less reason to praise the most productive Americans for being job creators. (Consider, to begin with, the situation in Silicon Valley.)

4. Because “economic theory is largely based on an extrapolation of the past rather than causality,” it may be slow, or worse, come to terms with this unprecedented change most people might not want to believe in.

5. A reasonable position is “We should be embracing technology, not fearing it, and that means educating and training Americans to perform more-skilled jobs.” But it’s not so reasonable to believe that additional training alone can really address adequately what is, in truth, far more than a minor problem.

6. It’s reasonable to worry that “even with access to better education and skills, not enough humans could adapt quickly enough to outperform intelligent software systems.” At one point in the evolution of the division of labor there was “the transition away from the agrarian economy” as human physical labor lost the battle with the engine. Now, “we might lose the mental battle.” Or, more precisely, most of us may lose that battle.

7. There will still be “new jobs…based on human intelligence or creativity.” That means that “the top ten to twenty percent of any profession…will continue to do well.” The news might be really bad for the bottom eighty percent who aren’t part of the cognitive elite. Most of what, say, lawyers and doctors do can be replaced by machines, but not everything. So for most attorneys the main fact today is disappearing jobs and declining compensation for those that remain. But the top lawyers are doing better than ever. And we can already see that our best schools are getting better than ever, while most of them are getting worse, and a similar comment could be made about the general level of parenting.

8. It might also be reasonable to worry that the income “disparity beyond a certain point will lead to social unrest.” And that worry comes from someone who’s “a fan of some inequality (read ‘incentives to work hard’) but lots of social mobility.” Considerable inequality with lots of mobility is, of course, at the core of the American middle-class morality of free beings who work for themselves. I would add, as I have before, that Cowen speculates that the diversions we all enjoy on the screen—perhaps facilitated by legalized marijuana—may keep the, at best, marginally productive from being animated by revolutionary hatred. The creepier possibility is the emergence of an idiocracy lacking the character-forming stability of relational responsibilities, but that hasn’t quite been reduced to nothing.

9. ”In an era of abundance and increasing income disparity, we may need a version of capitalism that is focused on more than just efficient production and also places greater prioritization on the less desirable side effects of capitalism.”

10. The above recommendation comes from an undaunted optimist about the unprecedented freedom and prosperity to come from the progress of capitalism and technology. And certainly I agree that the Piketty approach of government redistribution is no solution. Nor is any attempt to use government policy to put brakes on technological development. It remains the case that our efforts to subordinate the blessings of modern freedom and technology to properly human purposes is an intricate trial of our free will. The reform conservatives, begin with Yuval Levin, are aware of this deeply relational challenge.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © April 2015 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

*See article here.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Yes– the hedge fund masters just like to lock their ever-faster robots and calculus masters into scrums. Increasing the sophistication of their global parlor game, is their idea of increased productivity. No wonder the average man suffers, no one wants to fuss with labor any more… Employment and real growth was eviscerated with “sound money” policies starting with Volcker.

    The foolishness at Treasury has been to assume the financiers would heal themselves. Picketty’s confiscations are not the answer? Well then, what is? Still waiting…

  2. Not that I disagree on the whole, but I can scarcely wait until Western systems and cognition are run by machines deaf to any malfunction, programmed by 18-year-old nose-pickers who think history began in 2005 and culture has at best a two-month shelf-life.

  3. And, as production becomes ever more divorced from population, the “cognitive elites” will build bigger castles in Spain, and populate those castles with monsters from the ID. Meanwhile, the unemployed masses will be ever more seen as a large and unbearable drag on “society”, finally with calls for “depopulation without discrimination”.
    Yes, I did mix several science fiction tropes in that brew.

  4. This is all very unlikely. It’s more plausible that the next technology revolution will literally be a full-circle return to the 18th century. If we’re lucky. The good news is, there will be plenty of work for everyone.

  5. Well, I’d prefer a scenario wherein “Doc” Brown invents a nanotechnology machine that everyone will have in their homes to provide themselves with a living while working four hours per day, with the other hours of the day spent cultivating our gardens (channeling Roepke), and cultivating our minds with Homer, St Paul, Aristotle, Cicero, and yes indeed, Russell Kirk.

  6. If the humans make no money, who will buy the goods and services produced by the machines? Will the machines become consumers?

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