Friday, August 18, 2017

Education and Automation

Working in Education, I have to confront the conversations about Automation all the time: Are there enough jobs there for us to educate so many people?

As with other things in life, there are 'Many Sides' in this debate too.

One side of the argument is that there are enough jobs, and the unemployment is resulting from a skills mismatch. As evidence, one can cite simply the number of unfilled positions that the companies report, or the poor applicant-to-job offers ratio. 

The other side of the argument is that the jobs are really shrinking and many jobs are being automated, and we should be preparing for a future when most people would not find work. There is strong evidence for this as well: It is possible to show that the job numbers, when compared like-for-like (without counting the new positions created by new companies or sectors), are often decreasing, not only in the developed countries but also in supposedly high growth areas such as manufacturing in China. Also, despite all the talk of unfilled positions and skills mismatch, most wages are stagnant or decreasing in real terms. 

This is just a snapshot of the arguments, but one could perhaps see even in this that the debate is ideological in nature. One could look at the same piece of data - the stagnation of wages - and can draw very different conclusions. And, therefore, most data give no definitive answer about what is going to happen to jobs. One may write a book with a title like 'The Inevitable', as Kevin Kelly has done, but it is sobering to note that the Robots will take at least until 2020 to fold the laundry properly. 

Besides, almost all the predictions about human obsolesce do not take into two significant factors. 

First, most of these predictions are based, at least loosely, on Moore's Law, or the ability to double the processing capability of machines every 18 months or so. Such a pattern has held since the 60s, but assuming that the future will be the kind of thing we are told to guard against. Indeed, there is no guarantee such a trend will continue, and the Robots may indeed stop at folding laundry before taking the next leap only very slowly.

Second, we completely overlook that whether we develop technology in one direction or another is actually a decision we make. And, in fact, it is a political decision. For example, it was known for a long time that the women can do more than folding laundries, but it took us a while to accept them as equals in the scientific community. At a time when overpaid Google execs are writing memos based only on convenient facts, and an American President sees provocation in White Supremacist violence but finds none in case of Islamic terrorism, we should stop pretending that politics does not matter in the decisions we make.

My point here is that the automation and human obsolesce is not a secular, technological event, but it is a choice we are actively making. This is not about computer chips going beyond a certain threshold of capability - that still lies in the future, and is probabilistic - but has more to do with the climate of opinions today. Getting back to the dictum - Future is not going to be like the Past - we may argue that this does not only mean greater automation, but may equally stand for different priorities. And, this position may actually be Optimistic rather than Pessimistic: I am arguing that, in the near future, it may appear to us that finding cures for diseases like Ebola, which kills poor Africans at this time and are therefore considered unimportant, is more worthwhile than developing driverless cars. In summary, automation is an investment decision, made within a certain context, which may change rapidly.

Also, something needs to be said about what goes for Optimism these days. That we have wrong priorities - the point I made above - is taken as unscientific, anti-progress and pessimistic. Instead, the current prophets of artificial intelligence claim that automation will not only destroy jobs, but will create new ones: As evidence, they point to the track record of industrial revolution, and how it destroyed labour jobs but created new ones instead. In fact, that it managed to create the new jobs undermined the doomsday predictions of the contemporary observers, Karl Marx included. We should think whether or not this can continue.

This is actually one of the key features of capitalism: That it can create new jobs which has no immediate productive benefit. The magic machine of capitalism is not the more powerful computer, but advertising, the ability to manufacture desire and create new social expectations. If you think of the millionaire reality TV stars - or, even better, a reality TV President - you would see what I am referring to. In fact, celebrity culture and advertising is a self-generating loop ad infinitum, and this has kept the job machine going.

This may happen again, but there is one caveat. Someone has to pay: So far, we made the next generation pay for the earlier ones. I don't know about you, and I have this terrible feeling that we are that payback generation: The judgement day seems too close for comfort. This is indeed what all the austerity messages mean. And, when one sees two contradictory messages coming out - that the party must end and yet we have a magic machine to create jobs and prosperity endlessly - coming from the inhabitants of perhaps the most important street in the world, one must pay attention and pause to think.

So, in summary, we may have to readjust our priorities, because both our technological capability and our ability to pay for creating jobs, may not last forever. Universal Basic Income has been mooted as a solution, though this found no favours in quarters where the 'celebrities' are happily paid millions. And, this should perhaps tell us what we do with technology is political, and Education - rather than a passive producer of people for jobs - should be the shaper of these priorities and conversations. 

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