Why we are still convinced robots will take our jobs despite the evidence


Jeff Borland, University of Melbourne

The tale of new technologies causing the death of work is the prophecy that keeps on giving. Despite evidence to the contrary, we still view technological change today as being more rapid and dramatic in its consequences than ever before.

The mistaken view that robots will take our jobs may come from a human bias to believe that “we live in special times”. An absence of knowledge of history, the greater intensity of feeling about events which we experience first-hand, and perhaps a desire to attribute significance to the times in which we live, all contribute to this bias.

History repeating

In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes envisaged that innovations such as electricity would produce a world where people spent most of their time on leisure activities. In the United States in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson established a Presidential Commission to investigate fears that automation was permanently reducing the amount of work available.

Australia has not escaped the prophecy, with similar concerns about the future of work expressed in the 1970s.

In their history of Monash University, Graeme Davison and Kate Murphy report that:

In 1978, the historian Ian Turner, organised a symposium on the implications of the new technologies. The world, he predicted, was about to enter a period as significant as the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. By 1988, at least a quarter of the Australian workforce would be made redundant by technological change…

Some years later, Barry Jones continued the gloomy forecasts in his best-seller Sleepers Wake!:

In the 1980s, new technologies can decimate the labour force in the goods producing sectors of the economy…

Of course, none of this came to pass in Australia; just as work did not disappear in the 1930s in the United Kingdom, or the 1960s in the United States.

Yet today, we are seeing the resurrection of the prophecy. Commentary on the Australian labour market abounds with claims that the world of work is undergoing radical and unprecedented change.

The increased application of computer-based technologies in the workplace is suggested to be causing a reduction in the total amount of work available; or to be bringing a more rapid pace of substitution of machines for humans than has been seen previously.

No evidence for the death of work

In recent research with Michael Coelli, we argue that the prophecy is no more likely to be realised in the 2010s in Australia than in the 1970s.

Certainly, there is no evidence that the death of work is at present underway. Since the mid-1960s the aggregate hours worked by the Australian population (on a per capita basis) has remained stable.

In particular, there has been no long-run decline in the aggregate amount of work that matches the timing of the progressive introduction of computers to the workplace since the early 1980s.


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Source: Borland, J. and M. Coelli (2017), ‘Are robots taking our jobs?’, Australian Economic Review, forthcoming, Figure 3


Moreover, the pace at which workers are churning between jobs in the Australian labour market is not getting quicker. Not only is there no evidence that more workers are being forced to work in short duration jobs, but what is apparent is that the opposite has happened. The proportion of workers in very long duration jobs has increased over the past three decades.


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Source: Borland, J. and M. Coelli (2017), ‘Are robots taking our jobs?’, Australian Economic Review, forthcoming, Figure 9


Why work is not disappearing

There are good reasons why we should not expect new technologies to cause the death of work. New technologies always cause job losses, but that is only part of the story. What also needs to be understood is how they increase the amount of work available.

One way this happens is through the increases in incomes that accompany the application of new technologies. With the introduction of these technologies, it may take less labour time to produce what used to be consumed, but higher real incomes, together with an apparently unlimited human desire to spend, bring extra demand (for existing products as well as for new types of goods and services), and hence for workers to provide those extra goods and services.

As well, new technologies are likely to substitute for some types of workers, but to be complementary to, and hence increase demand for, other types of workers. Computer-based technologies appear to be complementary to workers who perform non-routine cognitive jobs.

In a report on the digitally enabled workforce, Stefan Hajkowicz and co-authors suggest a range of examples for Australia – such as an increase in demand for photographers at the same time as demand for photographic developers and printers has decreased; an increase in demand for graphic designers versus a decrease in demand for printers and graphic press workers; and a decrease in demand for bank tellers simultaneously with an increase in demand for finance professionals.

The ConversationThe end of work is no closer in Australia today than at any time in the past. So, perhaps there is a need to keep disproving the prophecy, to change our mindset.

Jeff Borland, Professor of Economics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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We’re close to banning nuclear weapons – killer robots must be next



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International flags fly at United Nations headquarters, New York City.
Osugi/shutterstock

Toby Walsh, Data61

While much of the world’s attention was focused last week on the G20 meeting in Hamburg, and Donald Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin, a historic decision took place at the United Nations (UN) in New York.

On Friday, 122 countries voted in favour of the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”.

Nuclear weapons were the only weapons of mass destruction without a treaty banning them, despite the fact that they are potentially the most
potent of all weapons. Biological weapons were banned in 1975 and
chemical weapons in 1992.

This new treaty sets the international norm that nuclear weapons are no longer morally acceptable. This is the first step along the road to their eventual elimination from our planet, although the issue of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remains unresolved.

Earlier this year, thousands of scientists including 30 Nobel Prize winners signed an open letter calling for nuclear weapons to be banned. I was one of the signees, and am pleased to see an outcome linked to this call so swiftly and resolutely answered.

More broadly, the nuclear weapon treaty offers hope for formal negotiations about lethal autonomous weapons (otherwise known as killer robots) due to start in the UN in November. Nineteen countries have already called for a pre-emptive ban on such weapons, fearing they will be the next weapon of mass destruction that man will invent.

An arms race is underway to develop autonomous weapons, in every theatre of war. In the air, for instance, BAE Systems is prototyping their Taranis drone. On the sea, the US Navy has launched their first autonomnous ship, the Sea Hunter. And under the sea, Boeing has a working version of a 15 metre long Echo Voyager autonomous submarine.

New treaty, new hope

The nuclear weapons treaty is an important step towards delegitimising nuclear weapons, and puts strong moral pressure on the nuclear states like the US, the UK and Russia to reduce and eventually to eliminate such weapons from their arsenals. The treaty also obliges states to support victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, and to address environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons.

It has to be noted that the talks at the UN and subsequent vote on the treaty were boycotted by all the nuclear states, as well as by a number of other countries. Australia has played a leading role in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and other disarmament talks. Disappointingly Australia was one of these countries boycotting last week’s talks. In contrast, New Zealand played a leading role with their ambassador being one of the Vice-Presidents of the talks.

Whilst 122 countries voted for the treaty, one country (the Netherlands) voted against, and one (Singapore) abstained from the vote.

The treaty will open for signature by states at the United Nations in New York on September 20, 2017. It will then come into force once 50 states have signed.

Even though major states have boycotted previous disarmament treaties, this has not prevented the treaties having effect. The US, for instance, has never signed the 1999 accord on anti-personnel landmines, wishing to support South Korea’s use of such mines in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with North Korea. Nevertheless, the US follows the accord outside of the DMZ.

Given that 122 countries voted for the nuclear prohibition treaty, it is likely that 50 states will sign the treaty in short order, and that it will then come into force. And, as seen with the landmine accord, this will increase pressure on nuclear states like the US and Russia to reduce and perhaps even eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.

When the chemical weapons convention came into effect in 1993, eight countries declared stockpiles, which are now partially or completely eliminated.

Public pressure

The vote also raises hope on the issue of killer robots. Two years ago, I and thousands of my colleagues signed an open letter calling for a ban on killer robots. This pushed the issue up the agenda at the UN and helped get 123 nations to vote last December at the UN in Geneva for the commencement of formal talks.

The UN moves a little slowly at times. Nuclear disarmament is the longest sought objective of the UN, dating back to the very first resolution adopted by the General Assembly in January 1946 shortly after nuclear bombs had been used by the US for the first time. Nevertheless, this is a hopeful moment in a time when hope is in short supply.

The ConversationThe UN does move in the right direction and countries can come together and act in our common interest. Bravo.

Toby Walsh, Professor of AI at UNSW, Research Group Leader, Data61

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.