Home' Technology Review : September October 2012 Contents Business Report 71
heard, one lawyer is now as productive as
500 used to be. You might not lay off 500
lawyers, but the next time you might hire
a few people and some software to read
Where is automation erasing jobs?
Others have done work showing that if
you are a “routine cognitive worker” fol-
lowing instructions or doing a structured
mental task, you have been under a lot
of downward wage pressure for a while
now. I think that is largely a technology
story. Payroll clerks, travel agents—we
don’t have as many of them as we used to.
We don’t have as many people working in
manufacturing, even though manufactur-
ing is a growing industry.
What was the response you received
to Race Against the Machine?
People accepted that technology was
really accelerating and that there were
going to be labor-force consequences.
The broader discussion was between
optimism and pessimism. Does it feel like
we are heading into the kind of economy
and society that we want, or the kind of
economy and society that we don’t? A lot
of people who commented said, “Look,
if these guys are anywhere near right,
we are heading into an economy that is
going to be dire for a lot of people.”
What does the economy that we don’t
want look like?
The spread between the haves and the
have-nots continues to grow, and more
importantly, the absolute standard of liv-
ing of the people at the middle and the
bottom goes down. That is the economy
that I don’t want to head into.
What is the optimistic view?
Erik Brynjolfsson came up with a great
phrase: “digital Athens.” The Athenian
citizens had lives of leisure; they got to
participate in democracy and create art.
That was largely because they had slaves
to do the work. Okay, I don’t want human
slaves, but in a very, very automated and
digitally productive economy you don’t
need to work as much, as hard, with as
many people, to get the fruits of the econ-
omy. So the optimistic version is that we
finally have more hours in our week freed
up from toil and drudgery.
Do you see evidence for a digital Athens
on the street, in the real economy?
No. What we are seeing—and this was
pretty much unanticipated—is that the
people at the top of the skill, wage, and
income distribution are working more
hours. We have this preference for doing
more work. The people who have a lot
of leisure—I think in too many cases it’s
involuntary. It’s unemployment or under-
employment. That is not my version of
Which is more advanced, the automation
of intellectual work or of physical tasks?
The automation of knowledge work is
way, way farther along. It’s really hard
to get computers to do things that your
four-year-old can do, like walk across the
room and pick up a pen, and recognize it
as a pen. So the physical world presents a
lot of challenges to digital technologies.
But it feels to me as if we are starting
to turn a corner. The data available to
help a robot is big data, and it’s explod-
ing. The sensors have been progressing
along a Moore’s Law trajectory. And the
physical pieces of a robot, the actuators
and so on, have gotten a lot better too. So
it seems the ingredients are all in place
for the robots to start getting into the
How should businesses react to the trend
toward more automation?
I think the companies that succeed going
forward are the ones that figure out what
mix of human and digital labor is going
to be the right mix. And I think that
proper mix is going to involve more, and
more types of, digital labor than we are
using right now.
What is your advice to the individual, or to
the parent educating a child?
To the parent, make sure your kid’s
education is geared toward things that
machines appear not to be very good at.
Computers are still lousy at program-
ming computers. Computers are still bad
at figuring out what questions need to be
answered. I would encourage every kid
these days to buckle down and do a dou-
ble major, one in the liberal arts and one
in the college of sciences.
Despite the glum view of changes in the
labor market, you’ve used the word
“cornucopia” to describe the results of
innovation. What do you mean by that?
We have access to amazing digital
resources. And a lot of it is all-you-can-
drink, no matter what your income level
is. Warren Buffett doesn’t have any more
Google than I have, or the unemployed
person has. When I see that there are five
billion mobile-phone subscriptions in the
world—well, hey, that is cornucopia. It is
important not to lose sight of that. n
“Make sure your kid’s education is
geared toward things that machines
appear not to be very good at.”
8/7/12 3:58 PM
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