Machines Replacing People

October 24th, 2011

I’ve written that we need not fear our robotic overlords. This article about the new ebook (which I just downloaded) titled  “Race Against the Machine,” suggests something to the contrary.

“Many workers, in short, are losing the race against the machine,” the authors write….

Technology has always displaced some work and jobs. Over the years, many experts have warned — mistakenly — that machines were gaining the upper hand. 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.

But Mr. Brynjolfsson and Mr. McAfee argue that the pace of automation has picked up in recent years because of a combination of technologies including robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, voice recognition and online commerce.

Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.

During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.

But there are still some things computers can’t do–yet.

Yet computers, the authors say, tend to be narrow and literal-minded, good at assigned tasks but at a loss when a solution requires intuition and creativity — human traits. A partnership, they assert, is the path to job creation in the future.

“In medicine, law, finance, retailing, manufacturing and even scientific discovery,” they write, “the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to competewith machines.”

You hear that! The key is not competing against the machines, but competing WITH the machines. And yes, this applies to law. I’ll post more when I finish the ebook.

Update: I read the book in one sitting and really enjoyed it, not too much new stuff, but worth it for $3.99.

Digitopoly has a good blurb about the value of smaller and smaller books.

Shorter books are easier for authors but also more enticing for readers. Faced with a 600 word tome, it is refreshing to spend a little on a book and also know you aren’t committing too much to find out what the author’s have to say. Shorter books are precisely what one should expect when attention is at a premium.

Tyler Cowen, of course, famously led the way with this new genre in economics with The Great Stagnation, published earlier this year; itself a bestseller. It started at $4.99 and then dropped in price by a $1 before actually getting a print release. Of course, it is a lengthy 128 pages when spread out with a slightly larger than normal font. Ryan Avent took it further with The Gated City, clocking in at 90 pages but priced at an attractive $1.99. These experiments have opened up a new category and in the process may actually lead to more writing. Sadly, they can’t read to more reading as I suspect consumer attention is the scarce resource. But it may lead to more diverse reading.

Coincidentally I bought and read Cowen’s book after reading this blog post. I love short books. I will probably write one soon!