Jobs, Robots, and ‘Humans Need Not Apply’

A worthwhile contribution to our discussion about automation, AI, cloud computing, education, and the future of work.

July 28, 2016

Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan

Published in August of 2015.

What books are on your Robots bookshelf?

What have you been reading that has helped you make sense of whether automation will degrade or improve our future?

How have you been trying to make sense of how higher education should adapt and change to stay relevant in an age of driverless cars, lawyer-less legal services, and professor-less teaching?

If you are developing such a library (and I bet that you might be), then I would recommend adding Humans Need Not Apply to your (digital) shelf.

Jerry Kaplan, a " computer scientist, author, futurist, and serial entrepreneur” -  (best known for founding Go - remember Go?) - has clearly thought deeply about the impact of automation on employment and society.

He comes at this question with no particular agenda to defend, or intellectual framework to bolster.  The result is what you’d expect (in good ways) if a very smart, experienced, and thoughtful person spent lots of time to think through the implications of recent big advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors, and cloud computing.

Kaplan has 3 big points to make about how technology will impact our future:

1 - The AI/Robotics/Sensor/Cloud technologies are indeed moving to commercial viability - and the confluence of this technological maturation will create nonlinear disruptions in labor markets and economic arrangements.

2 - New technologies will tend to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, trends towards economic inequality.

3 - We need invest serious time and effort in thinking deeply about robots today (what Kaplan calls forged laborers and synthetic intellects), as we will only get one chance to design policies, parameters, safeguards, and regulations to ensure that automation contributes to our social goals.

The way that Kaplan makes all three arguments is not through abstract reasoning or by resorting to economic theories - but rather by examples.  This makes for a satisfying read, as you learn lots of things about the current labor market, how automation has taken over security trading, and why Amazon has a P/E ratio of over 300 compared to Microsoft’s P/E ratio of 27.

What is refreshing about Humans Need Not Apply is that Kaplan is clearly one of the winners of the new economy - is a fan of both new technologies and new ways of organizing work - but is also deeply worried about the impact of both automation and an unregulated market on the majority of working people.

The current discussion of technology, robots, AI, and automation tends to break down into dichotomies and opposites.  Either you think that technology will make us wealthier (a good thing), or you believe that we are experience the Uberfication of the economy (insecure gig work leading up to technological unemployment).

Kaplan takes a more measured and moderate approach, arguing that it can be possible to have the benefits of new technologies (and companies like Uber), without creating an economy characterized by extreme concentrations of wealth and insecurity/under-employment for everyone else.

If I were teaching a course called Robots and Jobs, I would add Humans Need Not Apply to the syllabus.

The other books that we would read would include:

How worried should we be that every book on my list is written by a guy - or is that a different discussion?  (It does worry me - as I noticed this lack of gender diversity only after putting my list together).

What books would you add to the syllabus for this course?

Are books like these making it into syllabi and course discussions?

Are postsecondary leaders (outside of geeky edtech circles) reading these books, and are they influencing how they think about the future of their institutions?

How should those of us in higher ed elbow our way to the table in the larger societal discussion about robots, jobs, and the future?

How do we best make the case that in a world of rapidly expanding automation (and robots), that the best educational preparation is one that prioritizes communication, risk taking, collaboration, creativity, and leadership?  (The sorts of skills that liberal arts institutions already prioritize).

What are you reading?



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