Will robots take our jobs? Not “if” but “when”.

Jan 5 JDN 2458853

The prospect of technological unemploymentin short, robots taking our jobs—is a very controversial one among economists.

For most of human history, technological advances have destroyed some jobs and created others, causing change, instability, conflict—but ultimately, not unemployment. Many economists believe that this trend will continue well into the 21st century.

Yet I am not so sure, ever since I read this chilling paragraph by Gregory Clark, which I first encountered in The Atlantic:

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There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

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Based on the statistics, what actually seems to be happening right now is that automation is bifurcating the workforce: It’s allowing some people with advanced high-tech skills to make mind-boggling amounts of money in engineering and software development, while those who lack such skills get pushed ever further into the margins, forced to take whatever jobs they can get. This skill-biased technical change is far from a complete explanation for our rising inequality, but it’s clearly a contributing factor, and I expect it will become more important over time.

Indeed, in some sense I think the replacement of most human labor with robots is inevitable. It’s not a question of “if”, but only a question of “when”. In a thousand years—if we survive at all, and if we remain recognizable as human—we’re not going to have employment in the same sense we do today. In the best-case scenario, we’ll live in the Culture, all playing games, making art, singing songs, and writing stories while the robots do all the hard labor.

But a thousand years is a very long time; we’ll be dead, and so will our children and our grandchildren. Most of us are thus understandably a lot more concerned about what happens in say 20 or 50 years.

I’m quite certain that not all human work will be replaced within the next 20 years. In fact, I am skeptical even of the estimates that half of all work will be automated within the next 40 years, though some very qualified experts are making such estimates. A lot of jobs are safe for now.

Indeed, my job is probably pretty safe: While there has been a disturbing trend in universities toward adjunct faculty, people are definitely still going to need economists for the foreseeable future. (Indeed, if Asimov is right, behavioral economists will one day rule the galaxy.)

Creative jobs are also quite safe; it’s going to be at least a century, maybe more, before robots can seriously compete with artists, authors, or musicians. (Robot Beethoven is a publicity stunt, not a serious business plan.) Indeed, by the time robots reach that level, I think we’ll have to start treating them as people—so in that sense, people will still be doing those jobs.

Even construction work is also relatively safe—actually projected to grow faster than employment in general for the next decade. This is probably because increased construction productivity tends to lead to more construction, rather than less employment. We can pretty much always use more or bigger houses, as long as we can afford them. Really, we should be hoping for technological advances in construction, which might finally bring down our astronomical housing prices, especially here in California.

But a lot of jobs are clearly going to disappear, sooner than most people seem to grasp.

The one that worries me the most is truck drivers. Truck drivers are a huge number of people. Trucking employs over 1.5 million Americans, accounting for about 1% of all US workers. It’s one of the few remaining jobs that pays a middle-class salary with entry-level skills and doesn’t require an advanced education. It’s also culturally coded as highly masculine, which is advantageous in a world where a large number of men suffer so deeply from fragile masculinity (a major correlate of support for Donald Trump, by the way, as well as a source of a never-ending array of cringeworthy marketing) that they can’t bear to take even the most promising “pink collar” jobs.

And yet, long-haul trucking is probably not going to exist in 20 years. Short-haul and delivery trucking will probably last a bit longer, since it’s helpful to have a human being to drive around complicated city streets and carry deliveries. Automated trucks are already here, and they are just… better. While human drivers need rest, sleep, food, and bathroom breaks, rarely exceeding 11 hours of actual driving per day (which still sounds exhausting!), an automated long-haul truck can stay on the road for over 22 hours per day, even including fuel and maintenance. The capital cost of an automated truck is currently much higher than an ordinary truck, but when that changes, trucking companies aren’t going to keep around a human driver when their robots can deliver twice as fast and don’t expect to be paid wages. Automated vehicles are also safer than human drivers, which will save several thousand lives per year. For this to happen, we don’t even need truly full automation; we just need to get past our current level 3 automation and reach level 4. Prototypes of this level of automation are already under development; in about 10 years they’ll start hitting the road. The shift won’t be instantaneous; once a company has already invested in a truck and a driver, they’ll keep them around for several years. But in 20 years from now, I don’t expect to see a lot of human-driven trucks left.

I’m pleased to see that the government is taking this matter seriously, already trying to develop plans for what to do when long-haul trucks become fully robotic. I hope they can come up with a good plan in time.

Some jobs that will be automated away deserve to be automated away. I can’t shed very many tears for the loss of fast-food workers and grocery cashiers (which we can already see happening around us—been to a Taco Bell lately?); those are terrible jobs that no human being should have to do. And my only concern about automated telemarketing is that it makes telemarketing cheaper and therefore more common; I certainly am not worried about the fact that people won’t be working as telemarketers anymore.

But a lot of good jobs, even white-collar jobs, are at risk of automation. Algorithms are already performing at about the same level as human radiologists, contract reviewers, and insurance underwriters, and once they get substantially better, companies are going to have trouble justifying why they would hire a human who costs more and performs worse. Indeed, the very first job to be automated by information technology was a white-collar job: computer used to be a profession, not a machine.

Technological advancement is inherently difficult to predict: If we knew how future technology will work, we’d make it now. So any such prediction should contain large error bars: “20 years away” could mean we make a breakthrough next year, or it could stay “20 years away” for the next 50 years.

If we had a robust social safety net—a basic income, perhaps?—this would be fine. But our culture decided somewhere along the way that people only deserve to live well if they are currently performing paid services for a corporation, and as robots get better, corporations will find they don’t need so many people performing services. We could face up to this fact and use it as an opportunity for deeper reforms; but I fear that instead we’ll wait to act until the crisis is already upon us.

Wrong answers are better than no answer

Nov 6, JDN 2457699

I’ve been hearing some disturbing sentiments from some surprising places lately, things like “Economics is not a science, it’s just an extension of politics” and “There’s no such thing as a true model”. I’ve now met multiple economists who speak this way, who seem to be some sort of “subjectivists” or “anti-realists” (those links are to explanations of moral subjectivism and anti-realism, which are also mistaken, but in a much less obvious way, and are far more common views to express). It is possible to read most of the individual statements in a non-subjectivist way, but in the context of all of them together, it really gives me the general impression that many of these economists… don’t believe in economics. (Nor do they even believe in believing it, or they’d put up a better show.)

I think what has happened is that in the wake of the Second Depression, economists have had a sort of “crisis of faith”. The models we thought were right were wrong, so we may as well give up; there’s no such thing as a true model. The science of economics failed, so maybe economics was never a science at all.

Never really thought I’d be in this position, but in such circumstances actually feel strongly inclined to defend neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics is wrong; but subjectivism is not even wrong.

If a model is wrong, you can fix it. You can make it right, or at least less wrong. But if you give up on modeling altogether, your theory avoids being disproven only by making itself totally detached from reality. I can’t prove you wrong, but only because you’ve given up on the whole idea of being right or wrong.

As Isaac Asimov wrote, “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

What we might call “folk economics”, what most people seem to believe about economics, is like thinking the Earth is flat—it’s fundamentally wrong, but not so obviously inaccurate on an individual scale that it can’t be a useful approximation for your daily life. Neoclassical economics is like thinking the Earth is spherical—it’s almost right, but still wrong in some subtle but important ways. Thinking that economics isn’t a science is wronger than both of them put together.

The sense in which “there’s no such thing as a true model” is true is a trivial one: There’s no such thing as a perfect model, because by the time you included everything you’d just get back the world itself. But there are better and worse models, and some of our very best models (quantum mechanics, Darwinian evolution) are really good enough that I think it’s quite perverse not to call them simply true. Economics doesn’t have such models yet for more than a handful of phenomena—but we’re working on it (at least, I thought that’s what we were doing!).

Indeed, a key point I like to make about realism—in science, morality, or whatever—is that if you think something can be wrong, you must be a realist. In order for an idea to be wrong, there must be some objective reality to compare it to that it can fail to match. If everything is just subjective beliefs and sociopolitical pressures, there is no such thing as “wrong”, only “unpopular”. I’ve heard many people say things like “Well, that’s just your opinion; you could be wrong.” No, if it’s just my opinion, then I cannot possibly be wrong. So choose a lane! Either you think I’m wrong, or you think it’s just my opinion—but you can’t have it both ways.

Now, it’s clearly true in the real world that there is a lot of very bad and unscientific economics going on. The worst is surely the stuff that comes out of right-wing think-tanks that are paid almost explicitly to come up with particular results that are convenient for their right-wing funders. (As Krugman puts it, “there are liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economists.”) But there’s also a lot of really unscientific economics done without such direct and obvious financial incentives. Economists get blinded by their own ideology, they choose what topics to work on based on what will garner the most prestige, they use fundamentally defective statistical techniques because journals won’t publish them if they don’t.

But of course, the same is true of many other fields, particularly in social science. Sociologists also get blinded by their pet theories; psychologists also abuse statistics because the journals make them do it; political scientists are influenced by their funding sources; anthropologists also choose what to work on based on what’s prestigious in the field.

Moreover, natural sciences do this too. String theorists are (almost by definition) blinded by their favorite theory. Biochemists are manipulated by the financial pressures of the pharmaceutical industry. Neuroscientists publish all sorts of statistically nonsensical research. I’d be very surprised if even geologists were immune to the social norms of academia telling them to work on the most prestigious problems. If this is enough reason to abandon a field as a science, it is a reason to abandon science, full stop. That is what you are arguing for here.

And really, this should be fairly obvious, actually. Are workers and factories and televisions actual things that are actually here? Obviously they are. Therefore you can be right or wrong about how they interact. There is an obvious objective reality here that one can have more or less accurate beliefs about.

For socially-constructed phenomena like money, markets, and prices, this isn’t as obvious; if everyone stopped believing in the US Dollar, like Tinkerbell the US Dollar would cease to exist. But there does remain some objective reality (or if you like, intersubjective reality) here: I can be right or wrong about the price of a dishwasher or the exchange rate from dollars to pounds.

So, in order to abandon the possibility of scientifically accurate economics, you have to say that even though there is this obvious physical reality of workers and factories and televisions, we can’t actually study that scientifically, even when it sure looks like we’re studying it scientifically by performing careful observations, rigorous statistics, and even randomized controlled experiments. Even when I perform my detailed Bayesian analysis of my randomized controlled experiment, nope, that’s not science. It doesn’t count, for some reason.

The only at all principled way I can see you could justify such a thing is to say that once you start studying other humans you lose all possibility of scientific objectivity—but notice that by making such a claim you haven’t just thrown out psychology and economics, you’ve also thrown out anthropology and neuroscience. The statements “DNA evidence shows that all modern human beings descend from a common migration out of Africa” and “Human nerve conduction speed is approximately 300 meters per second” aren’t scientific? Then what in the world are they?

Or is it specifically behavioral sciences that bother you? Now perhaps you can leave out biological anthropology and basic neuroscience; there’s some cultural anthropology and behavioral neuroscience you have to still include, but maybe that’s a bullet you’re willing to bite. There is perhaps something intuitively appealing here: Since science is a human behavior, you can’t use science to study human behavior without an unresolvable infinite regress.

But there are still two very big problems with this idea.

First, you’ve got to explain how there can be this obvious objective reality of human behavior that is nonetheless somehow forever beyond our understanding. Even though people actually do things, and we can study those things using the usual tools of science, somehow we’re not really doing science, and we can never actually learn anything about how human beings behave.

Second, you’ve got to explain why we’ve done as well as we have. For some reason, people seem to have this impression that psychology and especially economics have been dismal failures, they’ve brought us nothing but nonsense and misery.

But where exactly do you think we got the lowest poverty rate in the history of the world? That just happened by magic, or by accident while we were doing other things? No, economists did that, on purpose—the UN Millennium Goals were designed, implemented, and evaluated by economists. Against staunch opposition from both ends of the political spectrum, we have managed to bring free trade to the world, and with it, some measure of prosperity.

The only other science I can think of that has been more successful at its core mission is biology; as XCKD pointed out, the biologists killed a Horseman of the Apocalypse while the physicists were busy making a new one. Congratulations on beating Pestilence, biologists; we economists think we finally have Famine on the ropes now. Hey political scientists, how is War going? Oh, not bad, actually? War deaths per capita are near their lowest levels in history? But clearly it would be foolhardy to think that economics and political science are actually sciences!

I can at least see why people might think psychology is a failure, because rates of diagnosis of mental illness keep rising higher and higher; but the key word there is diagnosis. People were already suffering from anxiety and depression across the globe; it’s just that nobody was giving them therapy or medication for it. Some people argue that all we’ve done is pathologize normal human experience—but this wildly underestimates the severity of many mental disorders. Wanting to end your own life for reasons you yourself cannot understand is not normal human experience being pathologized. (And the fact that 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year may make it common, but it does not make it normal. Is trying to keep people from dying of influenza “pathologizing normal human experience”? Well, suicide kills almost as many.) It’s possible there is some overdiagnosis; but there is also an awful lot of real mental illness that previously went untreated—and yes, meta-analysis shows that treatment can and does work.

Of course, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. We will continue to make mistakes. Many of our existing models are seriously flawed in very important ways, and many economists continue to use those models incautiously, blind to their defects. The Second Depression was largely the fault of economists, because it was economists who told everyone that markets are efficient, banks will regulate themselves, leave it alone, don’t worry about it.

But we can do better. We will do better. And we can only do that because economics is a science, it does reflect reality, and therefore we make ourselves less wrong.