Wed, Jan 08, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The march of the intelligent machines

A ‘second machine age’ is likely to test our ability to spread the rewards fairly, but is not something that will destroy jobs, as many fear

By Gavin Kelly  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

Whether it is our humdrum reliance on supermarket self-service cash registers, Siri on our iPhones, the emergence of the drone as a weapon of choice or the impending arrival of the driverless car, intelligent machines are woven into our lives as never before.

It is increasingly common, a cliche even, for us to read about the inexorable rise of the robot as the fundamental shift in advanced economies that will transform the nature of work and opportunity within society. The robot is supposedly the specter threatening the economic security not just of the working poor, but also the middle class across mature societies. “Be afraid” is the message: The march of the machine is eating into our jobs, pay rises and children’s prospects. And, according to many experts, we have not seen anything yet.

This is because the power of intelligent machines is growing as their cost collapses. They are doing things reliably now that would have sounded implausible only a few years ago. By the end of the decade, Nissan pledges the driverless car, Amazon promises that electric drones will deliver us packages, Rolls-Royce says that unmanned roboships will sail our seas. The expected use of machines for everyday purposes is already giving rise to angst about the nascent problem of “robot smog,” as other people’s machines invade ever more aspects of our personal space.

As economically significant, perhaps, as the rise of supergadgetry is the growing power of software to accurately process and respond to data patterns. This raises the prospect of machines reaching deep into previously protected areas of professional work like translation, medical diagnostics, the law, accountancy, even surgery.

As yet, this techno-hype is not matched by much hard evidence. According to the International Federation for Robotics, the use of robotics in leading advanced economies has doubled in the last decade — significant, but less than you might expect.

However, the experience varies dramatically: Uptake exploded in China, while the UK lags far behind its competitors. The key question is whether the upward trend is about to take off, giving rise to sweeping changes in production that dislocate large tranches of the workforce.

That is certainly the view of several highly influential US economists, such as leading blogger Tyler Cowen from George Mason University, and Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In works with bracing titles such as Average is Over and Race Against the Machine, they have seized the public debate with their genre of arresting, unequivocal and futuristic argument that blends techno-optimism about the potential of machines with chilling generational pessimism about the divisive consequences for much of society.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee, whose new book The Second Machine Age is set to be one of the zeitgeist works of this year, argue that the digital revolution is about to crash into our jobs market. It has taken a while — Time magazine awarded the personal computer machine of the year in 1982 — but, they contend, the technology has now matured to a point where it will have the same scale of impact on production as the steam engine once did.

Similarly, Cowen speculates that the future belongs to a gilded 10 percent to 15 percent of workers whose skills will augment intelligent machines — the rest can look forward to long-term stagnation or worse. The harsh labor market experience of the young over recent years is a mere taster of what is in store. Growing numbers of low-skilled workers risk being unemployable: There will not be a wage at which it will be worth employing them. Swaths of the working poor will make ends meet only by migrating to areas offering very cheap housing, crumbling infrastructure and low taxes.

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