Procrastinating on September 23, 2016

Comment of the Day: Kaleberg: AI:

One of the problems is that we don't always call them robots...

For example: We don't have robot lawyers, but we have eliminated thousands of lawyers and paralegals using advanced search algorithms, information retrieval and text processing. We don't have robot receptionists, but we do have voice mail systems, caller id management systems and customized ring tones. We don't have robot HR staff, but we do have automatic payroll, resume screening and 401k compliance systems.

This was predictable: We don't have Rosie the Robot standing over a sink washing dishes with a brush and drying them with a towel. We have dishwashers.

A big factor in the Great Depression of the 1930s was the immense success of robots in manufacturing, mining and agriculture. By 1920, the US was only half rural thanks to farming robots. Manufacturing saw productivity improvements of two or three orders of magnitude between the late 19th century and the late 1920s. I think that when we look back, we will see that information technology has been having a similar effect on a broad variety of jobs.

Remember, it took nearly 30 years before text processing finally meant using less paper rather than more. I bought my first CD ROM phone directory in the mid-80s, but they just closed the phone paper plant in town a few months ago. The collapse in retail, the restructuring of banks and clerical work, the replacement of low end IT people by cloud system monitoring software are all about replacing people with robots. They just don't look like robots, and the wholesale replacement is not always visible until we see its second order effects.

This wouldn't matter if wages had been rising to keep up demand, but wages haven't been rising for decades. We got out of the Great Depression only by dint of massive government spending. At one point the government effectively commandeered the entire economy. We aren't going to get out of this depression without something similar, though perhaps without the tens of millions dead.