High-skill robots, low-skill workers

Some notes on what I think I under­stand about tech­nol­o­gy and inequal­i­ty.

Let’s start with an obvi­ous big ques­tion: is tech­nol­o­gy destroy­ing jobs faster than they can be replaced? On the long term the evi­dence isn’t strong. Humans always appear to invent new things to do. There is no rea­son this time around should be any dif­fer­ent.

But in the short term tech­nol­o­gy has con­tributed to an evap­o­ra­tion of mid-skilled jobs. Parts of these jobs are auto­mat­ed entire­ly, parts can be done by few­er peo­ple because of high­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty gained from tech.

While pro­duc­tiv­i­ty con­tin­ues to grow, jobs are lag­ging behind. The year 2000 appears to have been a turn­ing point. “Some­thing” hap­pened around that time. But no-one knows exact­ly what.

My hunch is that we’ve seen an emer­gence of a new class of pseu­do-monop­o­lies. Oli­gop­o­lies. And this is com­pound­ed by a ‘win­ner takes all’ dynam­ic that tech­nol­o­gy seems to pro­duce.

Oth­ers have point­ed to glob­al­i­sa­tion but although this might be a con­tribut­ing fac­tor, the evi­dence does not sup­port the idea that it is the major cause.

So what are we left with?

His­tor­i­cal­ly, look­ing at pre­vi­ous tech­no­log­i­cal upsets, it appears edu­ca­tion makes a big dif­fer­ence. Peo­ple neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed by tech­no­log­i­cal progress should have access to good edu­ca­tion so that they have options. In the US the access to high qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion is not equal­ly divid­ed.

Appar­ent­ly fam­i­ly income is asso­ci­at­ed with edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment. So if your fam­i­ly is rich, you are more like­ly to become a high skilled indi­vid­ual. And high skilled indi­vid­u­als are priv­i­leged by the tech econ­o­my.

And if Piketty’s is right, we are approach­ing a real­i­ty in which mon­ey made from wealth ris­es faster than wages. So there is a feed­back loop in place which only exac­er­bates the sit­u­a­tion.

One more bul­let: If you think trick­le-down eco­nom­ics, increas­ing the size of the pie will help, you might be mis­tak­en. It appears social mobil­i­ty is helped more by decreas­ing inequal­i­ty in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of income growth.

So some pre­lim­i­nary con­clu­sions: a pro­gres­sive tax on wealth won’t solve the issue. The edu­ca­tion sys­tem will require reform, too.

I think this is the cen­tral irony of the whole sit­u­a­tion: we are work­ing hard to teach machines how to learn. But we are neglect­ing to improve how peo­ple learn.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is an independent designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.