Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and one of the pioneers of the world wide web, once declared: “The spread of computers and the internet will put jobs in two categories. People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.”
Andreessen has since repudiated this declaration, and taken a more optimistic stance. But economists, a more pessimistic bunch, are taking the possibility of this sort of bifurcated future more seriously.
As machine-learning technology enjoys rapid progress, more top researchers are investigating the question of what work will look like in a world filled with computers that can replicate or surpass many of humanity’s own mental abilities.
This is different from the scenario where robots take people’s jobs outright and leave humanity obsolete.
For decades, some economists have fretted about what they call skill-biased technological change, or the possibility that new technologies will reward those smart or mentally flexible enough to master them, while devaluing the skills of everyone else.
As computerisation proceeded in the 1980s, and as inequality rose, some economists worried that skill-biased technological change might already be having a big effect. But they probably jumped the gun.
In 2010, labour economist David Autor warned that routine tasks — jobs like assembly-line manufacturing or traditional office work — were being automated.
These jobs use a lot of brain power, but in a predictable, repetitive way — exactly the kind of thing that computers can do better than humans. Autor found that his measures of routine task input were declining decade by decade.
It’s also possible that the “people who tell computers what to do”, and who therefore reap the benefits of the machine age, will not be workers, but business owners. Some economists believe that cheap technology is causing labour’s share of global income to decline.
A recent study by Autor and coauthor Anna Salomons finds that since the 1970s, industries with faster productivity growth, international patenting and robot adoption have all seen labour lose out to capital.
That’s not a slam-dunk case — there are other reasons these factors could be hurting workers, and the rise of capital income could be mostly due to other forces. But this research raises the disturbing possibility that automation will lead to the final victory of capital over labour.
Now the worries about automation-induced inequality have increased, thanks to the stunning rise of machine learning.
Since 2013, there has been a surge of interest in this new technology, which allows computers to do tasks like image and speech recognition that were previously the sole province of human brains.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and big businesses alike are dreaming of ways to use machine learning to replace a vast array of human tasks, from driving trucks to preparing food.
Venture capitalists are pouring money into machine learning start-ups — often known by the trendy if inaccurate buzzword of “artificial intelligence”.
If machine learning automates away low-skilled tasks, as some predict, it might not make working-class people obsolete, but it could make their existence miserable nonetheless.
It’s possible to imagine a future where lower-skilled people are constantly seeing their jobs get gobbled up by machines, forcing them to always be transitioning to new tasks — perpetually seeking a niche that hasn’t yet been devoured by ingenious entrepreneurs and their subservient robots, even as wages diminish.
That scenario doesn’t necessarily involve high unemployment, but it’s hellish enough that it should worry people.
So what can be done to avert this future? The popular ideas include universal basic income, a national job guarantee and subsidies for the employment of human workers.
These are all ideas worth trying out on a modest scale, to see if they work; even if machine learning isn’t the threat some fear, they could be very helpful in reducing inequality.
Another idea is a social wealth fund — a government-managed fund or collection of funds that would use tax revenue to purchase shares in companies and distribute the dividends to citizens.
A social wealth fund would create a true ownership society, insuring the working populace against the rise of the robots by allowing each person to own a piece of those robots’ output. Ultimately, this seems like the simplest and most elegant solution.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg columnist