The Guardian view on automation from

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Marc Andreessen, a programmer who made a fortune off one of the first web browsers and then a bigger one by
investing the spoils, predicted some years ago that the world would soon
be divided into those people who told computers what to do, and those
who are told what to do by computers. It is a pithy demonstration of the
half truths that drive Silicon Valley. The task for humanists must be
to ensure that the other half of the truth is valued and acted on. To
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Computers are of course turning the world upside down, and transforming many of the jobs that they don’t abolish. The process seems
absolutely certain to continue: a recent OECD study suggesting that
only one in six jobs in industrial countries will disappear as a result
of automation has been hailed as a wonderfully optimistic counterblast
to earlier predictions that nearly half the jobs in advanced economies
would disappear.One job in six would – will – still involve a major
social transformation. Unless regulatory action is taken, this will not
be a transformation for the better.
For one of the characteristics of this wave of automation is that many of the new jobs which appear are worse and less interesting than
the ones they replace, in part because the humans doing them are fitted
into the decision-making hierarchy below the people who write the
algorithms that control them and the computers that interpret the
programmers’ intentions. To that extent Mr Andreessen was right. But the
new work has other disadvantages. It is much less secure and less well
paid. Those factors are not determined by technology, but are the
consequence of deliberate political decisions that technology serves to
This is already obvious to young people, and drives a lot of the support both for Jeremy Corbyn and, separately, for populist nationalist
politicians in Europe, who represent the threat to security as coming
from immigrants more than automation. The OECD report reaches its
relatively optimistic conclusions by analysing job descriptions more
carefully than previous estimators did. The kinds of skills which the
report sees as hard to replace are those involving social knowledge and
interaction. This optimism may be to some extent unwarranted, for two
The first is that computers are getting far better at analysing and classifying both sounds and imagery – the kinds of skills which are
easily mistaken for understanding. Software which runs on pretty
ordinary computers and can pick the cars and the pedestrians out of a
video recording of Indian traffic (in which cars, lorries, people and so
on are mixed apparently at random) is already freely available to
anyone who wants to play. The second is that just as computers are being
trained to accomplish more, we, the public, are being trained to
accomplish – and to expect – less. Increasing amounts of customer
service require us to interact directly with computers at the other end,
whether by filling out forms or dealing with voice recognition systems.
At the same time, those humans still employed for social interactions
are increasingly scripted and regimented; so that in dealing with a
modern bureaucracy it makes no difference whether there is a human or a
robot on the other side of the transaction. No doubt real human servants
will increase in value as status symbols for the rich, but this is
hardly a future to anticipate with pleasure.
Posted 09 Apr 2018

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