Imagine a matrix with two axes, manual versus cognitive and routine versus nonroutine. Jobs can then be arranged into four boxes: manual routine, manual nonroutine, and so on…Jobs on an assembly line fall into the manual-routine box, jobs in home health care into the manual-nonroutine box. Keeping track of inventory is in the cognitive-routine box; dreaming up an ad campaign is cognitive nonroutine.
The highest-paid jobs are clustered in the last box; managing a hedge fund, litigating a bankruptcy, and producing a TV show are all cognitive and nonroutine. Manual, nonroutine jobs, meanwhile, tend to be among the lowest paid—emptying bedpans, bussing tables, cleaning hotel rooms (and folding towels). Routine jobs on the factory floor or in payroll or accounting departments tend to fall in between. And it’s these middle-class jobs that robots have the easiest time laying their grippers on.
How much technology has contributed to the widening income gap in the U.S. is a matter of debate; some economists treat it as just one factor, others treat it as the determining factor. In either case, the trend line is ominous. Facebook is worth two hundred and seventy billion dollars and employs just thirteen thousand people. In 2014, Facebook acquired Whatsapp for twenty-two billion dollars. At that point, the messaging firm had a grand total of fifty-five employees. When a twenty-two-billion-dollar company can fit its entire workforce into a Greyhound bus, the concept of surplus labor would seem to have run its course.
Martin Ford (author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future”) worries that we are headed toward an era of “techno-feudalism,” He imagines a plutocracy shut away “in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.” Under the old feudalism, the peasants were exploited; under the new arrangement, they’ll merely be superfluous. The best we can hope for, he suggests, is a collective form of semi-retirement. He recommends a guaranteed basic income for all, to be paid for with new taxes, levelled, at least in part, on the new gazillionaires.
To one degree or another, just about everyone writing on the topic shares this view. Jerry Kaplan proposes that the federal government create a 401(k)-like account for every ten-year-old in the U.S. Those who ultimately do find jobs could contribute some of their earnings to the accounts; those who don’t could perform volunteer work in return for government contributions.
...if it’s unrealistic to suppose that smart machines can be stopped, it’s probably just as unrealistic to imagine that smart policies will follow. Which brings us ... to Trump. The other day, during his “victory lap” through the Midwest, the President-elect vowed to “usher in a new Industrial Revolution,” apparently unaware that such a revolution is already under way, and that this is precisely the problem. The pain of dislocation he spoke to during the campaign is genuine; the solutions he offers are not.