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Weekend Reading: Robots and Jobs

NewImageFrom David Leonhardt's The Upshot:

Claire Cain Miller: Will You Lose Your Job to a Robot? Silicon Valley Is Split: Following are a sampling of the points of view expressed in the Pew report.

Most utopian: “How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work.” — Hal Varian, chief economist at Google

Most dystopian: “We’re going to have to come to grips with a long-term employment crisis and the fact that — strictly from an economic point of view, not a moral point of view — there are more and more ‘surplus humans.'”— Karl Fogel, partner at Open Tech Strategies, an open-source technology firm

Most hopeful: “Advances in A.I. [artificial intelligence] and robotics allow people to cognitively offload repetitive tasks and invest their attention and energy in things where humans can make a difference. We already have cars that talk to us, a phone we can talk to, robots that lift the elderly out of bed and apps that remind us to call Mom. An app can dial Mom’s number and even send flowers, but an app can’t do that most human of all things: emotionally connect with her.” — Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit

Most grim: “The degree of integration of A.I. into daily life will depend very much, as it does now, on wealth. The people whose personal digital devices are day-trading for them, and doing the grocery shopping and sending greeting cards on their behalf, are people who are living a different life than those who are worried about missing a day at one of their three jobs due to being sick, and losing the job and being unable to feed their children.” — Bill Woodcock, executive director for the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit research institute on Internet traffic

Most frightening to Americans: “Globally, more jobs will be created by manufacturing of robots, but in developed countries like the U.S. and Europe jobs will be displaced by manufacturing by robots.” — Mike Liebhold, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group

Most frightening to parents: “Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines. And education systems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told to them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory.” — Howard Rheingold, tech writer and analyst

Most frightening to college students: “We hardly dwell on the fact that someone trying to pick a career path that is not likely to be automated will have a very hard time making that choice. X-ray technician? Outsourced already, and automation in progress. The race between automation and human work is won by automation.” — Jerry Michalski, founder of the Relationship Economy eXpedition

Most frightening to humans: “Robotic sex partners will be commonplace.… The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?'” — Stowe Boyd, lead researcher for GigaOM Research

Most complimentary toward humans: “Employment will be mostly very skilled labor — and even those jobs will be continuously whittled away by increasingly sophisticated machines. Live, human salespeople, nurses, doctors, actors will be symbols of luxury, the silk of human interaction as opposed to the polyester of simulated human contact.” — Judith Donath, fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Most frightening to men: “The biggest exception will be jobs that depend upon empathy as a core capacity — schoolteacher, personal service worker, nurse. These jobs are often those traditionally performed by women. One of the bigger social questions of the mid-late 2020s will be the role of men in this world.” — Jamais Cascio, technology writer and futurist

Most skeptical: “As an engineering community, we’ve been working on robotics and A.I. for a long time. The rationale behind today’s optimism is that with every technology generation, Moore’s Law brings us closer to having enough computational resources to solve these problems well. But 2025 feels too soon — it takes decades for fundamental ideas like quantum mechanics to be fully worked out by a research community.” — John Lazzaro, visiting lecturer in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley

Most reassuring:: “The technodeterminist-negative view, that automation means jobs loss, end of story, versus the technodeterminist-positive view, that more and better jobs will result, both seem to me to make the error of confusing potential outcomes with inevitability. A technological advance by itself can either be positive or negative for jobs, depending on the social structure as a whole. This is not a technological consequence; rather, it’s a political choice.” — Seth Finkelstein, software programmer and consultant