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TEDxBoston 2012

Andrew McAfee: Are droids taking our jobs?

June 4, 2012

Robots and algorithms are getting good at jobs like building cars, writing articles, translating -- jobs that once required a human. So what will we humans do for work? Andrew McAfee walks through recent labor data to say: We ain't seen nothing yet. But then he steps back to look at big history, and comes up with a surprising and even thrilling view of what comes next. (Filmed at TEDxBoston.)

Andrew McAfee - Management theorist
Andrew McAfee studies how information technology affects businesses and society. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
As it turns out, when tens of millions of people
00:15
are unemployed or underemployed,
00:18
there's a fair amount of interest in what technology might be doing to the labor force.
00:20
And as I look at the conversation, it strikes me
00:25
that it's focused on exactly the right topic,
00:27
and at the same time, it's missing the point entirely.
00:30
The topic that it's focused on, the question is whether or not
00:33
all these digital technologies are affecting people's ability
00:36
to earn a living, or, to say it a little bit different way,
00:40
are the droids taking our jobs?
00:43
And there's some evidence that they are.
00:45
The Great Recession ended when American GDP resumed
00:47
its kind of slow, steady march upward, and some other
00:51
economic indicators also started to rebound, and they got
00:55
kind of healthy kind of quickly. Corporate profits
00:58
are quite high. In fact, if you include bank profits,
01:01
they're higher than they've ever been.
01:04
And business investment in gear, in equipment
01:06
and hardware and software is at an all-time high.
01:09
So the businesses are getting out their checkbooks.
01:12
What they're not really doing is hiring.
01:16
So this red line is the employment-to-population ratio,
01:18
in other words, the percentage of working age people
01:22
in America who have work.
01:25
And we see that it cratered during the Great Recession,
01:27
and it hasn't started to bounce back at all.
01:31
But the story is not just a recession story.
01:34
The decade that we've just been through had relatively
01:36
anemic job growth all throughout, especially when we
01:39
compare it to other decades, and the 2000s
01:43
are the only time we have on record where there were
01:46
fewer people working at the end of the decade
01:48
than at the beginning. This is not what you want to see.
01:51
When you graph the number of potential employees
01:54
versus the number of jobs in the country, you see the gap
01:58
gets bigger and bigger over time, and then,
02:01
during the Great Recession, it opened up in a huge way.
02:05
I did some quick calculations. I took the last 20 years of GDP growth
02:07
and the last 20 years of labor productivity growth
02:12
and used those in a fairly straightforward way
02:15
to try to project how many jobs the economy was going
02:18
to need to keep growing, and this is the line that I came up with.
02:20
Is that good or bad? This is the government's projection
02:24
for the working age population going forward.
02:27
So if these predictions are accurate, that gap is not going to close.
02:31
The problem is, I don't think these projections are accurate.
02:36
In particular, I think my projection is way too optimistic,
02:39
because when I did it, I was assuming that the future
02:43
was kind of going to look like the past
02:46
with labor productivity growth, and that's actually not what I believe,
02:49
because when I look around, I think that we ain't seen nothing yet
02:52
when it comes to technology's impact on the labor force.
02:56
Just in the past couple years, we've seen digital tools
02:59
display skills and abilities that they never, ever had before,
03:03
and that, kind of, eat deeply into what we human beings
03:08
do for a living. Let me give you a couple examples.
03:11
Throughout all of history, if you wanted something
03:15
translated from one language into another,
03:17
you had to involve a human being.
03:20
Now we have multi-language, instantaneous,
03:21
automatic translation services available for free
03:25
via many of our devices all the way down to smartphones.
03:29
And if any of us have used these, we know that
03:32
they're not perfect, but they're decent.
03:35
Throughout all of history, if you wanted something written,
03:38
a report or an article, you had to involve a person.
03:41
Not anymore. This is an article that appeared
03:44
in Forbes online a while back about Apple's earnings.
03:47
It was written by an algorithm.
03:50
And it's not decent, it's perfect.
03:52
A lot of people look at this and they say, "Okay,
03:56
but those are very specific, narrow tasks,
03:59
and most knowledge workers are actually generalists,
04:01
and what they do is sit on top of a very large body
04:04
of expertise and knowledge and they use that
04:06
to react on the fly to kind of unpredictable demands,
04:09
and that's very, very hard to automate."
04:12
One of the most impressive knowledge workers
04:14
in recent memory is a guy named Ken Jennings.
04:16
He won the quiz show "Jeopardy!" 74 times in a row,
04:19
took home three million dollars.
04:24
That's Ken on the right getting beat three to one by
04:26
Watson, the "Jeopardy!"-playing supercomputer from IBM.
04:30
So when we look at what technology can do
04:35
to general knowledge workers, I start to think
04:37
there might not be something so special about this idea
04:40
of a generalist, particularly when we start doing things
04:42
like hooking Siri up to Watson and having technologies
04:45
that can understand what we're saying
04:49
and repeat speech back to us.
04:51
Now, Siri is far from perfect, and we can make fun
04:53
of her flaws, but we should also keep in mind that
04:56
if technologies like Siri and Watson improve
04:59
along a Moore's Law trajectory, which they will,
05:02
in six years, they're not going to be two times better
05:06
or four times better, they'll be 16 times better than they are right now.
05:08
So I start to think that a lot of knowledge work is going to be affected by this.
05:13
And digital technologies are not just impacting knowledge work.
05:17
They're starting to flex their muscles in the physical world as well.
05:20
I had the chance a little while back to ride in the Google
05:24
autonomous car, which is as cool as it sounds. (Laughter)
05:27
And I will vouch that it handled the stop-and-go traffic
05:32
on U.S. 101 very smoothly.
05:35
There are about three and a half million people
05:38
who drive trucks for a living in the United States.
05:40
I think some of them are going to be affected by this
05:42
technology. And right now, humanoid robots are still
05:45
incredibly primitive. They can't do very much.
05:48
But they're getting better quite quickly, and DARPA,
05:51
which is the investment arm of the Defense Department,
05:54
is trying to accelerate their trajectory.
05:57
So, in short, yeah, the droids are coming for our jobs.
05:59
In the short term, we can stimulate job growth
06:03
by encouraging entrepreneurship and by investing
06:07
in infrastructure, because the robots today still aren't
06:10
very good at fixing bridges.
06:13
But in the not-too-long-term, I think within the lifetimes
06:15
of most of the people in this room, we're going to transition
06:18
into an economy that is very productive but that
06:22
just doesn't need a lot of human workers,
06:25
and managing that transition is going to be
06:28
the greatest challenge that our society faces.
06:29
Voltaire summarized why. He said, "Work saves us
06:32
from three great evils: boredom, vice and need."
06:35
But despite this challenge, I'm personally,
06:40
I'm still a huge digital optimist, and I am
06:43
supremely confident that the digital technologies that we're
06:46
developing now are going to take us into a utopian future,
06:49
not a dystopian future. And to explain why,
06:52
I want to pose kind of a ridiculously broad question.
06:55
I want to ask what have been the most important
06:58
developments in human history?
07:00
Now, I want to share some of the answers that I've gotten
07:03
in response to this question. It's a wonderful question
07:05
to ask and to start an endless debate about,
07:08
because some people are going to bring up
07:10
systems of philosophy in both the West and the East that
07:12
have changed how a lot of people think about the world.
07:15
And then other people will say, "No, actually, the big stories,
07:19
the big developments are the founding of the world's
07:21
major religions, which have changed civilizations
07:24
and have changed and influenced how countless people
07:27
are living their lives." And then some other folk will say,
07:30
"Actually, what changes civilizations, what modifies them
07:33
and what changes people's lives
07:36
are empires, so the great developments in human history
07:38
are stories of conquest and of war."
07:42
And then some cheery soul usually always pipes up
07:45
and says, "Hey, don't forget about plagues." (Laughter)
07:48
There are some optimistic answers to this question,
07:53
so some people will bring up the Age of Exploration
07:56
and the opening up of the world.
07:58
Others will talk about intellectual achievements
08:00
in disciplines like math that have helped us get
08:02
a better handle on the world, and other folk will talk about
08:05
periods when there was a deep flourishing
08:08
of the arts and sciences. So this debate will go on and on.
08:10
It's an endless debate, and there's no conclusive,
08:13
no single answer to it. But if you're a geek like me,
08:16
you say, "Well, what do the data say?"
08:20
And you start to do things like graph things that we might
08:22
be interested in, the total worldwide population, for example,
08:25
or some measure of social development,
08:29
or the state of advancement of a society,
08:32
and you start to plot the data, because, by this approach,
08:34
the big stories, the big developments in human history,
08:38
are the ones that will bend these curves a lot.
08:41
So when you do this, and when you plot the data,
08:44
you pretty quickly come to some weird conclusions.
08:46
You conclude, actually, that none of these things
08:48
have mattered very much. (Laughter)
08:51
They haven't done a darn thing to the curves. (Laughter)
08:56
There has been one story, one development
09:00
in human history that bent the curve, bent it just about
09:04
90 degrees, and it is a technology story.
09:07
The steam engine, and the other associated technologies
09:11
of the Industrial Revolution changed the world
09:14
and influenced human history so much,
09:17
that in the words of the historian Ian Morris,
09:19
they made mockery out of all that had come before.
09:21
And they did this by infinitely multiplying the power
09:25
of our muscles, overcoming the limitations of our muscles.
09:28
Now, what we're in the middle of now
09:31
is overcoming the limitations of our individual brains
09:34
and infinitely multiplying our mental power.
09:37
How can this not be as big a deal as overcoming
09:40
the limitations of our muscles?
09:43
So at the risk of repeating myself a little bit, when I look
09:46
at what's going on with digital technology these days,
09:49
we are not anywhere near through with this journey,
09:52
and when I look at what is happening to our economies
09:55
and our societies, my single conclusion is that
09:58
we ain't seen nothing yet. The best days are really ahead.
10:00
Let me give you a couple examples.
10:04
Economies don't run on energy. They don't run on capital,
10:06
they don't run on labor. Economies run on ideas.
10:10
So the work of innovation, the work of coming up with
10:14
new ideas, is some of the most powerful,
10:16
some of the most fundamental work that we can do
10:18
in an economy. And this is kind of how we used to do innovation.
10:20
We'd find a bunch of fairly similar-looking people
10:24
— (Laughter) —
10:28
we'd take them out of elite institutions, we'd put them into
10:32
other elite institutions, and we'd wait for the innovation.
10:34
Now — (Laughter) —
10:37
as a white guy who spent his whole career at MIT
10:41
and Harvard, I got no problem with this. (Laughter)
10:44
But some other people do, and they've kind of crashed
10:50
the party and loosened up the dress code of innovation.
10:53
(Laughter)
10:55
So here are the winners of a Top Coder programming challenge,
10:56
and I assure you that nobody cares
11:00
where these kids grew up, where they went to school,
11:03
or what they look like. All anyone cares about
11:06
is the quality of the work, the quality of the ideas.
11:09
And over and over again, we see this happening
11:11
in the technology-facilitated world.
11:14
The work of innovation is becoming more open,
11:16
more inclusive, more transparent, and more merit-based,
11:18
and that's going to continue no matter what MIT and Harvard
11:22
think of it, and I couldn't be happier about that development.
11:25
I hear once in a while, "Okay, I'll grant you that,
11:29
but technology is still a tool for the rich world,
11:31
and what's not happening, these digital tools are not
11:35
improving the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid."
11:37
And I want to say to that very clearly: nonsense.
11:41
The bottom of the pyramid is benefiting hugely from technology.
11:43
The economist Robert Jensen did this wonderful study
11:47
a while back where he watched, in great detail,
11:50
what happened to the fishing villages of Kerala, India,
11:53
when they got mobile phones for the very first time,
11:56
and when you write for the Quarterly Journal of Economics,
11:59
you have to use very dry and very circumspect language,
12:02
but when I read his paper, I kind of feel Jensen is trying
12:05
to scream at us, and say, look, this was a big deal.
12:07
Prices stabilized, so people could plan their economic lives.
12:10
Waste was not reduced; it was eliminated.
12:14
And the lives of both the buyers and the sellers
12:18
in these villages measurably improved.
12:21
Now, what I don't think is that Jensen got extremely lucky
12:23
and happened to land in the one set of villages
12:27
where technology made things better.
12:29
What happened instead is he very carefully documented
12:32
what happens over and over again when technology
12:35
comes for the first time to an environment and a community.
12:37
The lives of people, the welfares of people, improve dramatically.
12:40
So as I look around at all the evidence, and I think about
12:44
the room that we have ahead of us, I become a huge
12:47
digital optimist, and I start to think that this wonderful
12:49
statement from the physicist Freeman Dyson
12:52
is actually not hyperbole. This is an accurate assessment of what's going on.
12:55
Our digital -- our technologies are great gifts,
13:00
and we, right now, have the great good fortune
13:02
to be living at a time when digital technology is flourishing,
13:05
when it is broadening and deepening and
13:09
becoming more profound all around the world.
13:11
So, yeah, the droids are taking our jobs,
13:14
but focusing on that fact misses the point entirely.
13:17
The point is that then we are freed up to do other things,
13:21
and what we are going to do, I am very confident,
13:24
what we're going to do is reduce poverty and drudgery
13:27
and misery around the world. I'm very confident
13:30
we're going to learn to live more lightly on the planet,
13:33
and I am extremely confident that what we're going to do
13:36
with our new digital tools is going to be so profound
13:39
and so beneficial that it's going to make a mockery
13:42
out of everything that came before.
13:45
I'm going to leave the last word to a guy who had
13:47
a front row seat for digital progress,
13:49
our old friend Ken Jennings. I'm with him.
13:51
I'm going to echo his words:
13:54
"I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords." (Laughter)
13:55
Thanks very much. (Applause)
13:59
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Andrew McAfee - Management theorist
Andrew McAfee studies how information technology affects businesses and society.

Why you should listen

Andrew McAfee studies the ways that information technology (IT) affects businesses, business as a whole, and the larger society. His research investigates how IT changes the way companies perform, organize themselves and compete. At a higher level, his work also investigates how computerization affects competition, society, the economy and the workforce.

He's a principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His books include Enterprise 2.0 and Race Against the Machine (with Erik Brynjolfsson). Read more on his blog.

 

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