Daniel Lemire's blog

, 13 min read

Are regular folks doomed?

17 thoughts on “Are regular folks doomed?”

  1. I think that you’re wildly underestimating the necessity for most people to keep doing exactly what they’re doing to keep society humming along.
    American corporation (to take just one example) don’t suffer unnecessary employees lightly. If they could continue to be profitable and eliminate 90% of the work force they would. As we’ve been going through the recession, corporations have basically trimmed about as much as they could without suffering debilitating hindrances that preclude them from making as much money as they can.

    Yes, many of our jobs will be obsolete in the not too distant future, but to suggest that we’ve already gotten there is just folly. Of course you can try and argue that society doesn’t “need” fancy shoes or as many varieties of cheese on our store shelves or the latest improvements to our Android phones, but that’s not for you to decide… society has decreed that it *does need exactly those things and so society pays for the creation and distribution of those things. To suggest that we can reduce our workforce by more than a % or two and have everything basically remain the same is simply absurd and you only need to look to places like Spain or Russia to confirm said absurdity.

  2. I think we won’t see any real AI any time soon. Not in the next 30 years.

  3. Marco says:

    I agree with you that most of us do not have real jobs. However, I am not sure that robots will take our jobs. The reason is economical. Where does profit come from? Marx says that profit comes from the exploitation of “living” workers. If there are no workers, then any business won’t be profitable. Hence, the the scenario you describe will cause a major economical crisis. I do not know if Marx was right on this point, but I think his argument should be considered and I am interested to know what people on this blog think about it.

  4. @Leonid

    You don’t need “real AI” (in the sense of human-level general intelligence) to wipe out jobs, the same way you did not need something like a horse to make horse carriage obsolete.

  5. Lukas Eder says:

    These aren’t particularly new findings. 150 years ago, some wise man claimed that capitalism will destroy itself by creating an increasing demand (and supply) of automation in search for ever increasing productivity and ever decreasing margins. That wise man was called Karl Marx, and I have recently mused about whether Free Open Source in software development is already the final means of unsurpassable productivity (many many work forces all working for free):

    Anyway, interesting choice of professions: software engineers and accountants. I would have thought of other engineering jobs first :-). Why accountants? You didn’t elaborate on that in your article…

  6. Carl Roberts says:

    I think arguments like Cowen’s neglect to take violence into consideration. Does he actually think that 90% of the population is going to passively sit around and suffer?

    At some point, people start throwing bricks through windows.

    I have always been fascinated by the backlash against technology that plays such a prominent role in the back story to Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” Before 90% of people are unemployed, we will see some sort of ban on certain technologies.

  7. Khursheed says:

    This means that there is evil in automation.

  8. Franklin Chen says:

    I’m not very good at predictions. I’ll come back here in a decade or to see how well everyone here has predicted the future :-).

  9. @Daniel, what we have now extremely expensive and untested prototypes. Remember that electric cars appeared > 100 years ago and we still don’t have on the roads. Thermonuclear fusion was discovered 50 years ago and we still cannot use it. Statistical machine learning is a very old field, but only now we can use it. All current AI depends on massive human effort. In that, we are nowhere close to replacing these humans. We would probably need to boost the number of programmers (and people who train machines directly & indirectly) by orders of magnitude.

  10. @Lukas

    Yes, engineering typically does well, but not as well as software. Software has grown to be huge. People often fail to realize just how many people have software-related jobs… it is enormous and growing all the time.

    Finance and accounting are also huge in terms of jobs. A strong driver for this are ever more complicated regulations coming either from the government or from industry standards. In some ways, it is counter-intuitive as you might have hoped that accounting would have been automated by now… but it is not so simple.

  11. Lukas Eder says:

    @Daniel: I know what you mean by Software having grown huge. But as I said, 150 years ago in Karl Marx’s days, automation was mostly mechanic and mechanical engineering and factory working was *huge*. “Regular folks” might have been people in manufactures, back then.

    Of course, it isn’t exactly the same, but I’m saying that steam power has equally transformed the society as a whole, just like software / the Internet. This situation isn’t that new.

  12. @Lukas

    But that’s the whole question… right… is what is happening new or not.

    Cowen and others will tell you that “this time it is different”. I used to think so.

  13. @Leonid

    I don’t deny that we are long way from achieving human-level general intelligence in software.

  14. Mark S says:

    > jobs appear out of thin air.

    Could you elaborate on the kind of jobs that would appear out of thin air? Can you be more specific than “Big Government will hire lots of people”?

    Recent stats seem to say that most newly created jobs are low-skill, minimum wage service jobs.

    If the newly created job is as meaningful as digging a hole and filling it up again, will people still want to get that job out of “status” reasons?

  15. @Mark

    It is impossible to predict the employment picture…

    It seems entirely possible that governments will grow bigger and fund more and more people. That is not what I personally desire… but it seems possible.

  16. I don’t think the purpose of jobs is to stop other people from going hungry; I think it’s to raise the quality of life for those people. I agree that widespread slavery where people are the slave owners (aka AI) would help raise that quality. I am a bit worried about the slaves – if not because of Skynet then because of hackers messing with the AI. Oh well.

  17. Antony Lemure says:

    One of the reasons we see the jobs disappear is outsourcing. The jobs in manufacturing are not gone, they just moved to low wage countries. And yes, robots can do a job faster and better but not cheaper.