The US election and the future

Political scientists will be dissecting the results of the 2016 US presidential election for the next decade but certainly one fact that is likely to be germane to any analysis is that real wages have been stagnant or declining for the past 45 years. I predict that this trend will only worsen no matter who is in power. The stark reality is that most jobs are replaceable by machines. This is not because AI has progressed to the point that machines can act human but because most jobs, especially higher paying jobs, do not depend heavily on being human. While I have seen some consternation about the prospect of 1.5 million truck drivers being replaced by self-driving vehicles in the near future, I have seen much less discourse on the fact that this is also likely to be true for accountants, lawyers, middle managers, medical professionals, and other well compensated professionals. What people seem to miss is that the reason these jobs are well paid is that there are relatively few people who are capable of doing them and that is because they are difficult for humans to master. In other words, they are well paid because they require not acting particulary human. IBM’s Watson, which won the game show Jeopardy and AlphaGo, which beat the world’s best Go player, shows that machines can quite easily better humans at specific tasks. The more specialized the task, the easier it will be for a machine to do it. The cold hard truth is that AI does not have to improve for you to be replaced by a machine. It does not matter whether strong AI, (an artificial intelligence that truly thinks like a human), is ever possible. It only matters that machine learning algorithms can mimic what you do now. The only thing necessary for this to happen was for computers to be fast enough and now they are.

What this implies is that the jobs of the future will be limited to those that require being human or where interacting with a human is preferred. This will include 1) jobs that most people can do and thus will not be well paid like store sales people, restaurant servers, bar tenders, cafe baristas, and low skill health workers, 2) jobs that require social skills that might be better paid such as social workers, personal assistants, and mental health professionals, 3) jobs that require special talents like artisans, artists, and some STEM professionals, and 4) capitalists that own firms that employ mostly robots. I strongly believe that only a small fraction of the population will make it to categories 3) and 4). Most people will be in 1) or not have a job at all. I have argued before that one way out is for society to choose to make low productivity work viable. In any case, the anger we saw this year is only going to grow because existing political institutions are in denial about the future. The 20th century is over. We are not getting it back. The future is either the 17th or 18th century with running water, air conditioning and health care or the 13th century with none of these.

7 thoughts on “The US election and the future

  1. That seems a plausible scenario, but i think there are others. For one, if there is ‘ecological collapse’ due to carbon dioxide (AGW), possibly overpopulation, all kinds of pollution including possibly some related to industrial agriculture (pesticides, GMOs, etc.), and nuclear or other war, it may be ‘the world as we know it’ will be gone, except maybe remnants. (This might be like collapse or Roman Empire, or extinction of dinosaurs–the world does come back, but a different one.)

    Another possibility would be to combine making ‘low productivity work’ viable—eg with an aging population, assuming some sort of ‘Logan’s Run’ style policy is not implemented (eg anyone over age 25 is euthanisezed since they are just taking up space), home health care work is a big industry, like Walmart and the military, but it could be compensated better, and supplemented with a ‘negative income tax’/EITC/basic income.

    Also there could be job sharing as is sometimes of often done in households. People can do ‘intellectual work’ like studying or arts, but also do some chores. Some educational work (schoolteachers, a fair amount of academic work which is not very technical (at least assuming there is some objective standard for technique) such as poetry, art, even music, philosophy, political theory, etc can be done by anyone with some sort of basic (maybe college level) education. So these jobs can be shared.

    The ‘citizen’s science’ movement might be a prototype. (In terms of CLR James, once an have ‘every cook be a governor’ and maybe a scientist. See also ‘scientist in the crib’ by Gopnik—-babies are scientists, but don’t usually get careers in the field. Not that many may be needed. The blog ‘mathematics under the microscope’ has discussed how very few people need to know higher math, tho eventually some of it becomes useful to everyone in the form of a smartphone—i lost mine yesterday, and i don’t really use it. (he has a templeton grant too, and i’ve heard some fields medalist winners give theirs away since they dont need the money , but others may use the economic algorithm of ‘infinite wants, finite resources’ so they need it ).

    The same with journalism and politics—how many people do you need to deliver the exact same news story or political stump speech (the latter is supported by huge armies of political campaign organizers combined with the support network of air travel, uber drivers and hotel staff ). A possibly large fraction of the current economy seems unnecesary—-junk food, fitness centers and obesity clinics to cure that problem, advertizers, etc.

    It is also possible that more people are capable of producing valuable ‘intangible’ or intellectual/ideological goods. (This is why concepts like U Chicago’s canon or curriculum of ‘great books’ has been generalized—it may be there are other great books and ideas, but currently marginalized both socially and economically—some of these marginalized productions later become ‘classics’ whether Stravinsky, or Melville’s book about ‘ahab’ or ‘the great white whale’, or van Gogh. Hated, feared and endangered species later become viewed as valuable parts of the ecosystem. (I think it possible that some valuable scientific papers exist that are not part of the dominant paradigm and hence marginalized.)

    It is true that humans operate by ‘collective behavior’ (or modes, as they say in physics). So some pop stars, etc. become popular. But this may be like religion—it could be collective hysteria, something to discourage. I don’t know if there is an algorthm which can decide whether its better to ‘let every flower bloom’ versus promoting certain ‘modes of thought’ over others. (Of course some pop music such as the ‘coke is it’ song do deserve what they earn—they are like the national anthem, so when played at NFL games people should kneel).

    There are (likely ) other plausible scenarios. Its also possible that all these scenarios are similar to the thoughts and plans of atoms and cells while projecting futures states of matter and biological evolution. (eg schrodinger, ‘what is life’ and ‘mind and matter’). These are just epiphenomena.

    (one could classify scenarios , the way they do for say ‘finite groups’ . Max Tegmark has some sort of classification. (If H Poincare was correct, the 20th century will come back. )

    ps. i didn’t know or remember that the ‘standard model’ can be written in one line (i don’t remember the notation, but it looked like QED to me. schrodinger equations can be derived in basically 3 or 4 lines with definitions. Godel’s theorem in maybe 1. )

    regarding ‘category 2’ mental health and social workers , i think these fields suffer similar problems as police and and prison employees. (i have heard some private prisons employ lobbyists to argue against cannabis legalization, as do some ‘big pharma’ companies, because it cuts into their business. Alot of public school cafeterias for a long time (and likely still are ) run by ‘american dietetic and nutritional societies’. French fries, canned vegetables, ketchup, cheesburgers, fried fish were the basic nutrition. Social and mental health workers (including addiction counselors) often got their education at a community college—they are experts, and explain that ‘its all in your genes, and gene is a word i learned at community college’. They operate a ‘revolving door’ similar to the ‘congressman to lobbyist’ one. They have a job telling people to ‘get a job’ and ‘cope with life’ and wait until the people they counsel come back so they can remain employed via their social work. More advanced people like Fred Goodwin (psychiatrist who was at GWU, who had a radio show on NPR until he was kicked off the air )have more detailed counseling, basically by helping distressed people by prescribing them the ‘magic cure’ whichever company paid them to offer. There was another GWU psychatrist/social worker who was helping parents undertand the disease their kid had of being gay. (He had to change his line, tho likely not his job).

    if computers replace humans, it may just be one more step in ‘the blind leading the blind’. ‘im beginning to see the light’ (at the end of the tunnel—see velvet underground, john cale, etc on youtube—classical viola player and prodigy who went into the andy warhold culture of ‘rock n roll’ i 60’s—but he was east coast side which was opiate based, rather than west coast (eg grateful dead) which was lsd based. ‘better living through chemistry’. (richard pryor was later, into ‘free base’.) ‘we all live in a chinese room (john searle) or on a ‘chinese rock’ (johnny thunders) .

    i went up to chimney rock near gettysburg pae yesterday–you dont want to fall off of that.


  2. We have to get out of the jobs = financial and overall security mindset, commit to real redistribution via Universal Basic Income and then in a few decades, redefine ‘work’ as engaging in society and family, expression through art, music, gardening etc. and whatever adds meaning to the individual. But that seems like it is so off the radar for left and right.

    Far Left and far right agree that trade is bad for America (which it is), but it did reduce global inequality.
    The step back from humanism to overly narrow nationalism is I think a step back.
    (Hi after a while Carson).


  3. There is a frustrating disjunction in the U.S. between the economic realities of automation and the Protestant/Calvinist cultural belief in validation through work. As is, a lot of jobs are not very engaging and feel like they were created more for the sake of giving a person something to do/filling the company with more bodies rather than actually benefiting organization. I hope the realities of automation can shift this culture. Being paid on an okay basic income while having the time to learn things, exercise, and create art sounds more preferable to me than grinding at something that could be automated.


  4. My solution that I have promoted is a return for most people to small-scale farming and public works. For instance, we could have true “organic” farming by the government paying people to work in shifts and watch over small farms where they manually remove pests without spraying any chemicals, synthetic or otherwise. People should get some basic income but could supplement their income with crops grown this way, which the government could buy back at a set rate. This type of program should be managed at the municipal/state level. The federal government can give block grants and instruct cities to hire people to inspect these small farms and assist people in their farming. We would still have some amount of factory farming to make sure that our food supply is stable but we could see increased diversity in the crops that we have on the market with such a program.

    Other tasks would include cleanup of the environment and the maintenance of public spaces.


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