Race Against the Machine: Could machines make work more human?

Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s new book Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy is getting a ton of press. The reason why isn’t hard to spot: The central argument that smart machines are now replacing white-collar workers and that, economically speaking, that might not be automatically good news, plays on sky-high unemployment anxiety and our nagging sense that maybe we’ve been too uncritical about the tech that’s weaving itself ever more firmly into our lives.

But not everyone is fretting about a future of work dominated by machines. Business leaders, technologists and economists are peering into the future of work, but futurists are too, and at least one of them sees reason for optimism. A little competition from machines might improve humans, writes James Lee on the World Future Society blog:

David Autor is an economist at MIT who . . . writes that labor markets worldwide are rapidly becoming polarized and he sees a clustering of job opportunities at opposite ends of the skills spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum are low-paying service-oriented jobs that require personal interaction and the manipulation of machinery in unpredictable environments. Examples might include driving a vehicle in traffic, cooking food in a busy kitchen, or taking care of cranky pre-schoolers. Unless people decide to freight their toddlers to India for cheaper childcare, these tasks will still need to be performed locally . . . To the extent that many service jobs involve human interaction, they also require skills such as empathy and interpersonal communication.

At the other end of the spectrum are jobs that require creativity, ambiguity, and high levels of personal training and judgment. These jobs tend to pay well, because they require skill sets that are more difficult to replicate.

The job opportunities of the future require either high cognitive skills, or well-developed personal skills and common sense. In a nutshell, people will need to be either “smart” or “nice” to be successful . . . Luddites should take notice — computers just might push us to do work that is meaningful and enables us to become better people.

There are several possible objections to this argument, the first being that a reasonable level of shared economic prosperity also underlies the better angels of our nature (i.e., innovation, creativity and kindness). Few symphonies get written or breakthrough products designed by people struggling to buy food, and we tend to be meaner when we feel threatened or shortchanged. If anything close to some of the more apocalyptic economic scenarios came to pass and advancing technology created an unemployable underclass, then the negatives to humanity would almost certainly outweigh the benefits.

Plus, there’s the gut instinct reaction that a certain percentage of people will always be jerks and intelligence will always fall on a bell curve, no matter what sort of economic system we develop. Being smart and nice have always worked well for some. So has being a dictatorial narcissist, and, sadly, maybe it always will. Or maybe adjustments will be made and more machines employed, but our economic system will remain much the same as it has through previous shifts in technology.

Do you think more automation and technology will force humans to up their game to compete?

Image courtesy of Flickr user RedCraig