Sunday , June 25 2017
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Maid In America

Summary:
Update: Searle, not Seattle. Damn spellcheck (or maybe the AI was making a Microsoft joke?) Izabella Kaminska has a thought-provoking piece on the real effects of technology on wages, in which she argues that much recent innovation, instead of displacing manual workers, has displaced high-paying skilled jobs. As it happens, I sort of predicted this 20 years ago, in a piece written for the Times magazine’s 100th anniversary (authors were asked to write as if it was 2096, and they were looking back.) I argued then that menial work dealing with the physical world – gardeners, maids, nurses – would survive even as quite a few jobs that used to require college disappeared. As it turns out, big data has led to more progress in something that looks like artificial intelligence than I expected — self-driving cars are much closer to reality than I would have thought, and maybe gardening robots and post-Roomba robot cleaners will follow. Still, the point about the relative displacement of cognitive versus manual jobs seems to stand. An aside: given the way Google Translate and such work, Seattle’s Searle’s Chinese Room Argument doesn’t look as foolish as I used to think it was. Anyway, Kaminska’s point about the disruptiveness of such technological change is something we should take seriously. After all, it has happened before.

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Update: Searle, not Seattle. Damn spellcheck (or maybe the AI was making a Microsoft joke?)

Izabella Kaminska has a thought-provoking piece on the real effects of technology on wages, in which she argues that much recent innovation, instead of displacing manual workers, has displaced high-paying skilled jobs. As it happens, I sort of predicted this 20 years ago, in a piece written for the Times magazine’s 100th anniversary (authors were asked to write as if it was 2096, and they were looking back.)

I argued then that menial work dealing with the physical world – gardeners, maids, nurses – would survive even as quite a few jobs that used to require college disappeared. As it turns out, big data has led to more progress in something that looks like artificial intelligence than I expected — self-driving cars are much closer to reality than I would have thought, and maybe gardening robots and post-Roomba robot cleaners will follow. Still, the point about the relative displacement of cognitive versus manual jobs seems to stand.

An aside: given the way Google Translate and such work, Seattle’s Searle’s Chinese Room Argument doesn’t look as foolish as I used to think it was.

Anyway, Kaminska’s point about the disruptiveness of such technological change is something we should take seriously. After all, it has happened before. The initial effect of the Industrial Revolution was a substantial de-skilling of goods production. The Luddites were, for the most part, not proletarians but skilled craftsmen, weavers who constituted s sort of labor aristocracy but found their skills devalued by the power loom. In the long run industrialization did lead to higher wages for everyone, but the long run took several generations to happen — in that long run we really were all dead.

So interesting stuff. I’d note, however, that it remains peculiar how we’re simultaneously worrying that robots will take all our jobs and bemoaning the stalling out of productivity growth. What is the story, really?

Paul Krugman
Paul Robin Krugman (born February 28, 1953) is an American economist, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. In 2008, Krugman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.

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