Thu, May 23, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Will there be any jobs left for humans?

Throughout history, economic upheavals have destroyed whole industries — and created new ones. However, some fear automation may signal the death of mass employment

By Will Hutton  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

Suddenly a robotized, automated economic reality is moving off the science fiction pages and into daily life. The growing use of unmanned battlefield drones is encouraging the growth of pilotless commercial aircraft — the first one flew in British airspace last month. Google’s driverless car is completing ever more trials more successfully, while the world’s major car companies are all hot in pursuit, working on prototypes of their own versions. The automated checkout at supermarkets is becoming as familiar as bank cash machines. From staff-free ticket offices to students who can learn online, it seems there is no corner of economic life in which people are not being replaced by machines.

This is the “Great Reset” — a cull of broadly middle-class jobs with middle-class incomes that is apparent across the West, but with little current sign of what industries and activities will replace them.

The world has lost millions of jobs before — on the land or in the old horse-powered economy — but they were soon replaced by jobs in the car industry or the new service industries. What worries many economists and computer scientists is that today’s technologies are going to remove people from economic activity completely.

Some argue that a dystopian world is emerging in which good jobs and full-time employment will become the preserve of an educated, computer-literate elite. For example Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google are plainly riding the new wave, but they are not mass employers like Tesco, Ford or General Motors.

Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University, asks if we are ready for a world in which half the adult population does not work. The Great Reset — the economy resetting itself, after a major technological shock, to deliver jobs for all — may never happen.

The omens are all around. The US economy has never generated so few jobs in an upturn since records began. In Britain, the Resolution Foundation charts the ongoing squeeze on low and middle incomes, and observes brutally that already Britain has the second-highest proportion of low-paid jobs in the developed world. The formal unemployment numbers, now ominously rising five years since the crisis began, do not capture the full extent to which the economy is not delivering good work.

Plainly some of the explanation is that the economy is still reeling from the effect of the financial crisis and the accompanying vast overhang of private debt. However, economies have an embedded resilience. Output will return to the levels of 2008, probably some time next year. There will be an economic “recovery.” However, this raises the question: What happens afterwards?

Think through the implications of the driverless car. These will be vehicles whose complex sensors allow them to communicate with one another, so that they know one another’s intended route. One of the reasons Google is investing so much is that whoever owns the communications system for driverless cars will own the 21st century’s equivalent of the telephone network: a license to print money.

The benefits are endless. Roads will both be able to carry more traffic and be safer. Personalized door-to-door transport will become hugely pleasurable: Your car will deliver you to your home or place of work and then park itself without you. Road accidents will plummet. Energy efficiency will be transformed. Insurance rates, even the need for insurance, will plunge. Personalized transport, ordered by your mobile phone, will gradually replace mass transport networks.

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