BRAVE NEW WORLD: Automation hits the professions, but most remain delusionally confident – so far

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– Pilots show what lies ahead for many of us.

Carr argues that as professional jobs grow increasingly automated, “more and more, we’re all kind of turning into variations on computer operators.” He uses pilots as a prime example of what can happen when a professional role is transformed into that of a button pusher.  Autopilot has increased aviation safety, but pilots typically spend under five minutes manually controlling the plane during a flight.
Interview with Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.

Commercial pilots were an enviable lot in the post-WWII era, with travel, status, security, and high pay. Now they’ve been crushed by mergers of their employers (less bargaining power) and increased tech (fewer jobs per plane with less value-added). Ahead lies still more automation and a massive rise in foreign competition — doing to them what it did to American merchantmen (now existing only in small numbers as a government-protected species.

See The Truth About the Profession, What Can New Pilots Make? Near Minimum Wage. There’s a Pilot Shortage: Salaries Start at $21,000. Note the economics, something still not understood by most economists. Corporations run wages down to the point where there is a shortage of workers willing to train themselves for those jobs. Profits are maximized at this magic point of a slight shortage, where increasing wages would supply but reduce profits.

The Third Industrial Revolution begins, but remains mysterious.

The articles that describe the emerging industrial revolution mix fact and fancy, as does this in the NYT.

The future of automation

Flying a plane is largely automated today and will become more so. And at Google, the biggest seller of online ads, software does much of the selling and placing of search ads, meaning there is much less need for salespeople. … Even jobs that become automated often require human involvement, like doctors on standby to assist the automated anesthesiologist, called Sedasys.

Think about that last sentence. Anesthesiology becomes more automated, as anesthesiologists become standby helpers for routine surgery. How many lost jobs does that simple sentence imply? Lots. It’s the automation strawman: it won’t take all our jobs. True, but enough could be lost to substantially tilt the supply-demand balance against workers, so that even the people with jobs earn far less from them.

The Guardian gives a colder and more accurate assessment.

Knowledge-based jobs were supposed to be safe career choices, the years of study it takes to become a lawyer, say, or an architect or accountant, in theory guaranteeing a lifetime of lucrative employment. That is no longer the case. Now even doctors face the looming threat of possible obsolescence. Expert radiologists are routinely outperformed by pattern-recognition software, diagnosticians by simple computer questionnaires. In 2012, Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla predicted that algorithms and machines would replace 80% of doctors within a generation.

… So where does that leave the professions, whose hard-won expertise is beginning to fall within the power of computers and artificial intelligence to emulate? The efficiency of computerisation seems likely to spell the end of the job security past generations sought in such careers. For many, what were once extraordinary skillsets will soon be rendered ordinary by the advance of the machines. What will it mean to be a professional then?

“We’ll see what I call decomposition, the breaking down of professional work into its component parts,” says leading legal futurist professor Richard Susskind. Susskind’s forthcoming book Beyond the Professions, co-authored with his son Daniel Susskind, examines the transformations already underway across the sectors that once offered jobs for life. He predicts a process not unlike the division of labour that wiped out skilled artisans and craftsmen in the past: the dissolution of expertise into a dozen or more streamlined processes.

Even here, however, futurists like Susskind remains blind to the inexorable law of supply and demand.

In a previous book Tomorrow’s Lawyers, he predicts the creation of eight new legal roles at the intersection of software and law. Many of the job titles sound at home in IT companies: legal knowledge engineer, legal technologist, project manager, risk manager, process analyst.

“Many traditional lawyers will look at that and think: ‘Yes, they might be jobs, but that’s not what I went to law school for. And that’s not what my parents’ generation did as lawyers.’” That, says Susskind, is not his concern: whether we call these new positions lawyers or not, the legal sector will survive.

“What I often say is that the future of law is not Rumpole of the Bailey, and it’s not John Grisham,” explains Susskind. “It’s not a version of what we have today slightly tweaked. It will be people working in the legal sector but offering legal services and legal help in new ways.” It may be the end of the profession as immortalised in courtroom dramas, but as software eats the old jobs it will have to create new ones too.

Susskind describes legal services jobs, but these are not the jobs that made it a solid middle-class profession. These jobs are to attorneys what H&R Block tax advisers are to accountants. The value-added comes largely from the software, and the job pays accordingly.

The Guardian article then surveys Law, Medicine, and Architecture — making the same mistake in each. The number of jobs might remain the same after automation, but often with lower incomes for most in the field. Paralegals with powerful software will provide legal services to the remnants of the middle class. Optometrists will increasingly replace ophthalmologists as providers of many services (including computer-controlled laser surgery), as their own work also gets automated — leaving a surplus of optometrists.

What about the creative class?

What happens to the creative class? They became part of the middle class for a heartbeat in time, and now large numbers of them drop from the middle class to the blue collar ranks, becoming laborers with insecure incomes and low savings (fate of most in winner-take-all competitions). It’s back to the future, a return to conditions before the 20th century.

Look at musicians. Tech allows us to listen to more professionally produced music than ever before, and this demand seems likely to increase. But a middle class life for musicians becomes ever less likely.  The evidence is now clear. CBS: “Musicians: Streaming will sweep us into poverty.” — New tech exacerbates an already severe imbalance in the share of income going to the artists.  “A Grammy Nominated Artist Shares His Royalty Statements.” — “Someone’s making money, … it’s not the artists.”  “The music industry is still screwed.” — “Why Spotify, Amazon and iTunes can’t save musical artists. Pandora, Spotify and Beats aren’t making a profit. If they never do, your favorite band will need a day job.” An example of their economics: Pomplamoose 2014 Tour Profits (or Lack Thereof). Here’s a study of the numbers: A study on musicians’ revenue in the U.S.

Writers, editors, reporters — everybody is on the same slide down. Tech creates a labor surplus, then wages fall for most in the field (even when the numbers employed increase, which is not always the result).


Industrial revolutions improve our lives in many ways. They challenge us politically, as our system gives most of the rewards to the rich. It’s about distribution, about our choices. We’ve overcome this problem in the past, although with severe social unrest — and often violence. We can learn from the past and manage this transition painlessly to a better world.

In the next chapter: the fallacy of education as a solution.

For More Information

I recommend these books about the new industrial revolution: Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015) and The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014) by Eric and Andrew McAfee.

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