“There Isn’t Actually Much Evidence That It’s Happening”

Had the misfortune recently of being inside a Kmart, which reminded me of the last, sad days of the defunct Nobody Beats the Wiz consumer-electronics franchise, when it was very clear that Somebody Had Most Definitely Beaten the Wiz–and beyond recognition. Just a handful of kids worked the sprawling, three-level store, with several customers leaving in frustration because no one was around to unlock merchandise they wanted to purchase or help them find products. It was largely a dust-covered ghost town filled with cheap plastic goods, an Adam Levine collection of clothes Adam Levine would not wish on his worst enemy and some dubious looking flat-screen TVs emitting a sickly blue glow. 

The Wiz died because of an overly aggressive expansion in the mid- to late-’90s, a time when big-box stores, Kmart included, became impossible to compete with. Now Amazon and other online retailers are the disrupters, with big-boxers and malls fighting for their lives. From the consumer point of view, these transitions are mostly a win, because online shopping is better than Kmart which was better than the Wiz, in terms of selection (always) and cost (usually). For workers, it seems at best a lateral move.

If enough brick-and-mortar outlets disappear, the overall number of jobs decline. Amazon needs fewer to do the same tasks and even the new positions it creates aren’t better compensated than the ones supplanted. The company announced in April that it was hiring 2,500 workers at its New Jersey fulfillment centers. Management positions, which require a Bachelor’s degree, pay $31,000. Not exactly a living wage for a family of four. 

You could say the flow from small chain to big box to web shopping happened without any profound advances in robotics driving the evolution, though that depends of how you define the term. Algorithms made it all possible. They will also over time make possible the replacement of a lot of those fulfillment-center workers, as Amazon and the other Silicon Valley megapowers like Apple, are investing heavily in automation systems. That doesn’t necessarily ensure crisis, since new work can be created. But if enough jobs disappear too quickly or some whole sectors get decimated by, say, driverless cars, the shift could get messy.

The future remains unsettled: Are we in the nascent stage of a new era of automation which is slow starting like PCs were but will eventually boom, or is this scare as toothless as others in history? If it’s the former, wealth will grow but distribution may get trickier.

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James Surowiecki, a skeptic of a Second Machine Age, recently wondered which jobs have been completely disappeared by technology, which is an amusing exercise but a fairly insignificant question. In a Wired article, however, he makes a potent argument that all trusted indicators (productivity, job churn, etc.) say decisively that the machines have not yet come for our jobs. An excerpt:

Over the past few years, it has become conventional wisdom that dramatic advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have put us on the path to a jobless future. We are living in the midst of a “second machine age,” to quote the title of the influential book by MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in which routine work of all kinds—in manufacturing, sales, bookkeeping, food prep—is being automated at a steady clip, and even complex analytical jobs will be superseded before long. A widely cited 2013 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, for instance, found that nearly half of all jobs in the US were at risk of being fully automated over the next 20 years. The endgame, we’re told, is inevitable: The robots are on the march, and human labor is in retreat.

This anxiety about automation is understandable in light of the hair-raising progress that tech companies have made lately in robotics and artificial intelligence, which is now capable of, among other things, defeating Go masters, outbluffing champs in Texas Hold’em, and safely driving a car. And the notion that we’re on the verge of a radical leap forward in the scale and scope of automation certainly jibes with the pervasive feeling in Silicon Valley that we’re living in a time of unprecedented, accelerating innovation. Some tech leaders, including Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Tesla’s Elon Musk, are so sure this jobless future is imminent—and, perhaps, so wary of torches and pitchforks—that they’re busy contemplating how to build a social safety net for a world with less work. Hence the sudden enthusiasm in Silicon Valley for a so-called universal basic income, a stipend that would be paid automatically to every citizen, so that people can have something to live on after their jobs are gone.

It’s a dramatic story, this epoch-defining tale about automation and permanent unemployment. But it has one major catch: There isn’t actually much evidence that it’s happening.•