The Robots Are Coming
Real-world data shows the connection between automation and employment contradicts the standard narrative
We humans evolved in relatively simple environments such as the African savannah and the forests of Eurasia. The challenges we faced were relatively predictable and for the most part we used our brains to gain advantage over each other. Until the period beginning at the end of the last ice-age around 13,000 years ago, very little changed. Tens of thousands of years could pass without a single noticeable change appearing in human technology or social organization. Only since the end of the last ice-age have we experienced an ever-accelerating rate of change. And it is something our ape-brains are not at all adapted to cope with.
Not surprisingly therefore, we perform very poorly when confronted with complex and seemingly novel challenges. When we attempt to predict the future we invariably extrapolate from whatever happens to be the situation today and draw a straight line into the future, with whatever trends we happen to observe predicted to increase over time.
This is why US politicians and economists were absolutely certain by the early 1970s that Japan would become the world’s dominant economy by 2000. It is why people worried first about running out of coal, and later worried equally about running out of oil (anyone remember Hibbert’s Peak?). It’s why people imagined in the 1950s that by now everyone and their pet hamster would be flying around in nuclear-powered jet cars.
Experts are just as useless at predicting the future as sci-fi writers. Marx utterly failed to understand the social changes that would be wrought by the Industrial Revolution and tragically summoned up communism as a misguided way of supposedly mitigating the horrors of capitalism. That mistake led hundreds of millions of people to experience decades of poverty and privation under the iron rule of the Soviet Union while the West experienced the greatest gains in material wellbeing in all of human history.
Anyone who cares to thumb though an old copy of Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock will discover that professional futurists are astonishingly bad at spotting the truly important trends. Geeks do no better — Bill Gates’ book The Road…