On a cloudy November evening in the small village of Bulwell, four miles north of Nottingham in the UK, a band of men assembled in the darkness with blackened faces and scarves pulled across their faces. In military fashion, they hoisted their weapons – hammers, axes, pistols, swords – and marched towards their destination, ready to engage in battle. Upon arrival, they forced their way through the windows and doors and proceeded to destroy everything in sight. Once each man had disposed of their foe, a pistol was fired, the group disbanded and they headed home. Though they undoubtedly emerged from battle as victors, indeed no casualties were ever reported, the war had not been won. For unlike most wars, they were not fighting to extinguish an evil oppressor, nor were they attempting to conquer new land. They were fighting for their jobs and livelihoods. And their enemy was not human, but a machine.
In the early 19th Century a new form of activism grew in England, where groups of men organised themselves and began smashing factories to ‘uninvent technology’ that threatened to take away their jobs and social status as elite craftsmen. It started with framework knitters in Nottingham who, angry at the prospect of wage cuts and fewer jobs, took to destroying the machines that were replacing them. News spread from village to village and soon more violence ensued as artisans facing similar fates in other industries during the Industrial Revolution armed themselves and joined-in on the destruction. These activists were known as Luddites, supposedly after Ned Ludd, a youth who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779 in what was described as a “fit of passion” after being whipped for idleness. The Bill to make frame breaking a capital offence was unopposed in the House of Lords. Save the romantic poet Byron, whose close friend Percy Shelley (another great poet) set up a fund for Luddite orphans. Percy’s wife, Mary Shelley, wrote ‘Frankenstein’, largely in response to Luddism, and remains as a beautiful treatise against the machine.
Fortunately for us, depending on how you look at it, Luddism died out and the Industrial Revolution prevailed, giving rise to the technological innovation that has brought the world together and enabled us to communicate with one another in ways unfathomable to the Luddites of the past. Such innovation has unquestionably lead to the rapid development of the world as new machinery and software has automated industrial processes, greatly improving their efficiency.
However, it is not all sunshine and rainbows.
Continued research into Artificial Intelligence and access to faster, cheaper computers, are now giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, such as understanding speech, translating between languages, and recognising patterns. Moving beyond the production plants in large-scale manufacturing, automation is being rapidly assimilated into jobs in call centres, marketing, sales, and even financial and legal services – all parts of the services sector that provides most jobs in the economy.
Algorithms do not suffer from many of the traits that make us distinctively human. The absence of irrational biases and factors unrelated to their occupation such as sleep, stress, and concentration, enable algorithms to ruthlessly satisfy the narrow range of tasks they have been designed to perform, completing tasks much faster and more effectively than humans. Machine learning – a discipline that focuses on the construction and study of algorithms that can learn from data – coupled with large data sets are making non-routine cognitive tasks increasingly computerisable, particularly in domains reliant upon storing or accessing information. Many law firms are now reliant on computers that can scan thousands of legal briefs and precedents to assist in pre-trial research. Symantec’s Clearwell system, which uses language analysis to identify general concepts in documents, can present the results graphically, and has proved capable of analysing and sorting more than 570,000 documents in two days.
In finance, human traders are being replaced by emotionless algorithms capable of processing a greater number of financial announcements, press releases, and other information, and then trading at far greater speeds. Smarter algorithms are beginning to emerge that are able to conduct fundamental valuation for stocks, threatening the analysts who are paid for the laborious task of building financial models in Excel.
In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes warned of a “new disease” that he termed “technological unemployment”, the inability of the economy to create new jobs faster than jobs were lost to automation. Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his collaborator Andrew McAfee argue that advances in computer technology is a key factor behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. They believe that automation is destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States and many other technologically advanced countries.
Productivity – the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labour – is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation and is a useful measure of progress. Plotting productivity and total employment in the United States over time, Brynjolfsson and McAfee uncover startling evidence suggesting Keynes was right. For years after World War II, the two lines closely followed each other, with job increases following increases in productivity: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole grew richer. However, beginning in 2000, the two lines diverge and a significant gap appears between them, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee refer to it as the “great decoupling”.
People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organisations aren’t keeping up
Many economists believe that technology boosts productivity and thus makes societies wealthier. Brynjolfsson and McAfee do not dispute this, but they think that technology can also have a much darker side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before. “It’s the great paradox of our era”, he says, “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organisations aren’t keeping up.”
Carl Frey and Michael Osbourne of Oxford University conducted a study in 2013 that estimated the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and concluded that 47 percent of total US employment is at risk. Their findings suggest that a substantial share of employment in service occupations are highly susceptible to computerisation and imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will be reallocated to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation – i.e. tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. This evidence supports the current trend towards labour market polarisation, with growing employment in high-income cognitive jobs and low-income manual occupations, accompanied by a hollowing-out of middle-income routine jobs.
Will all professional jobs be replaced by computers?
Perhaps. But it won’t happen overnight. “We’ll see what I call decomposition, the breaking down of professional work into its component parts,” says leading legal futurist professor Richard Susskind. He predicts a process not unlike the division of labour that wiped out skilled artisans and craftsmen in the past: the dissolution of expertise into a dozen or more streamlined processes. “Some of these parts will still require expert trusted advisers acting in traditional ways,” he says. “But many other parts will be standardised or systematised or made available with online service.” So what is more likely in the future is augmentation of knowledge-workers, however a decline in jobs is inevitable.
In their much-debated book, ‘The Second Machine Age’, Brynjolfsson and McAfee issue a warning, “Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead… there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”
So what can we expect to see in the future?
Will we see a rise in Neo-Luddism and a war against technology? Or will we transition towards a cashless utopia where robot workers and complex algorithms cater to our every need? Both of these prospects are highly unlikely as technological innovation is the inevitable result of our innate curiosity that makes us human. Therefore, this leaves us with no other option than to acknowledge the structural changes that are taking place across labour markets and never grow complacent with our knowledge. We should strive to learn and acquire new skills even after our formal education has come to an end. As Darwin noted in his theory of evolution by natural selection, “It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”