As it turns out, when tens of millions of people are unemployed or underemployed, there's a fair amount of interest in what technology might be doing to the labor force. And as I look at the conversation, it strikes me that it's focused on exactly the right topic, and at the same time, it's missing the point entirely. The topic that it's focused on, the question is whether or not all these digital technologies are affecting people's ability to earn a living, or, to say it a little bit different way, are the droids taking our jobs? And there's some evidence that they are.
The Great Recession ended when American GDP resumed its kind of slow, steady march upward, and some other economic indicators also started to rebound, and they got kind of healthy kind of quickly. Corporate profits are quite high; in fact, if you include bank profits, they're higher than they've ever been. And business investment in gear — in equipment and hardware and software — is at an all-time high. So the businesses are getting out their checkbooks. What they're not really doing is hiring. So this red line is the employment-to-population ratio, in other words, the percentage of working-age people in America who have work. And we see that it cratered during the Great Recession, and it hasn't started to bounce back at all.
But the story is not just a recession story. The decade that we've just been through had relatively anemic job growth all throughout, especially when we compare it to other decades, and the 2000s are the only time we have on record where there were fewer people working at the end of the decade than at the beginning. This is not what you want to see. When you graph the number of potential employees versus the number of jobs in the country, you see the gap gets bigger and bigger over time, and then, during the Great Recession, it opened up in a huge way.
I did some quick calculations. I took the last 20 years of GDP growth and the last 20 years of labor-productivity growth and used those in a fairly straightforward way to try to project how many jobs the economy was going to need to keep growing, and this is the line that I came up with. Is that good or bad? This is the government's projection for the working-age population going forward. So if these predictions are accurate, that gap is not going to close.
The problem is, I don't think these projections are accurate. In particular, I think my projection is way too optimistic, because when I did it, I was assuming that the future was kind of going to look like the past, with labor productivity growth, and that's actually not what I believe. Because when I look around, I think that we ain't seen nothing yet when it comes to technology's impact on the labor force.
Just in the past couple years, we've seen digital tools display skills and abilities that they never, ever had before, and that kind of eat deeply into what we human beings do for a living. Let me give you a couple examples.
Throughout all of history, if you wanted something translated from one language into another, you had to involve a human being. Now we have multi-language, instantaneous, automatic translation services available for free via many of our devices, all the way down to smartphones. And if any of us have used these, we know that they're not perfect, but they're decent.
Throughout all of history, if you wanted something written, a report or an article, you had to involve a person. Not anymore. This is an article that appeared in Forbes online a while back, about Apple's earnings. It was written by an algorithm. And it's not decent — it's perfect.
A lot of people look at this and they say, "OK, but those are very specific, narrow tasks, and most knowledge workers are actually generalists. And what they do is sit on top of a very large body of expertise and knowledge and they use that to react on the fly to kind of unpredictable demands, and that's very, very hard to automate." One of the most impressive knowledge workers in recent memory is a guy named Ken Jennings. He won the quiz show "Jeopardy!" 74 times in a row. Took home three million dollars. That's Ken on the right, getting beat three-to-one by Watson, the Jeopardy-playing supercomputer from IBM. So when we look at what technology can do to general knowledge workers, I start to think there might not be something so special about this idea of a generalist, particularly when we start doing things like hooking Siri up to Watson, and having technologies that can understand what we're saying and repeat speech back to us.
Now, Siri is far from perfect, and we can make fun of her flaws, but we should also keep in mind that if technologies like Siri and Watson improve along a Moore's law trajectory, which they will, in six years, they're not going to be two times better or four times better, they'll be 16 times better than they are right now. So I start to think a lot of knowledge work is going to be affected by this.
And digital technologies are not just impacting knowledge work, they're starting to flex their muscles in the physical world as well. I had the chance a little while back to ride in the Google autonomous car, which is as cool as it sounds.
And I will vouch that it handled the stop-and-go traffic on US 101 very smoothly. There are about three and a half million people who drive trucks for a living in the United States; I think some of them are going to be affected by this technology. And right now, humanoid robots are still incredibly primitive. They can't do very much. But they're getting better quite quickly and DARPA, which is the investment arm of the Defense Department, is trying to accelerate their trajectory.
So, in short, yeah, the droids are coming for our jobs. In the short term, we can stimulate job growth by encouraging entrepreneurship and by investing in infrastructure, because the robots today still aren't very good at fixing bridges. But in the not-too-long-term, I think within the lifetimes of most of the people in this room, we're going to transition into an economy that is very productive, but that just doesn't need a lot of human workers. And managing that transition is going to be the greatest challenge that our society faces. Voltaire summarized why; he said, "Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need."
But despite this challenge — personally, I'm still a huge digital optimist, and I am supremely confident that the digital technologies that we're developing now are going to take us into a Utopian future, not a dystopian future. And to explain why, I want to pose a ridiculously broad question. I want to ask: what have been the most important developments in human history?
Now, I want to share some of the answers that I've gotten in response to this question. It's a wonderful question to ask and start an endless debate about, because some people are going to bring up systems of philosophy in both the West and the East that have changed how a lot of people think about the world. And then other people will say, "No, actually, the big stories, the big developments are the founding of the world's major religions, which have changed civilizations and have changed and influenced how countless people are living their lives." And then some other folk will say, "Actually, what changes civilizations, what modifies them and what changes people's lives are empires, so the great developments in human history are stories of conquest and of war." And then some cheery soul usually always pipes up and says, "Hey, don't forget about plagues!"
There are some optimistic answers to this question, so some people will bring up the Age of Exploration and the opening up of the world. Others will talk about intellectual achievements in disciplines like math that have helped us get a better handle on the world, and other folk will talk about periods when there was a deep flourishing of the arts and sciences. So this debate will go on and on. It's an endless debate and there's no conclusive, single answer to it. But if you're a geek like me, you say, "Well, what do the data say?" And you start to do things like graph things that we might be interested in — the total worldwide population, for example, or some measure of social development or the state of advancement of a society. And you start to plot the data, because, by this approach, the big stories, the big developments in human history, are the ones that will bend these curves a lot.
So when you do this and when you plot the data, you pretty quickly come to some weird conclusions. You conclude, actually, that none of these things have mattered very much.
They haven't done a darn thing to the curves. There has been one story, one development in human history that bent the curve, bent it just about 90 degrees, and it is a technology story.
The steam engine and the other associated technologies of the Industrial Revolution changed the world and influenced human history so much, that in the words of the historian Ian Morris, "... they made mockery out of all that had come before." And they did this by infinitely multiplying the power of our muscles, overcoming the limitations of our muscles. Now, what we're in the middle of now is overcoming the limitations of our individual brains and infinitely multiplying our mental power. How can this not be as big a deal as overcoming the limitations of our muscles?
So at the risk of repeating myself a little bit, when I look at what's going on with digital technology these days, we are not anywhere near through with this journey. And when I look at what is happening to our economies and our societies, my single conclusion is that we ain't seen nothing yet. The best days are really ahead.
Let me give you a couple examples. Economies don't run on energy. They don't run on capital, they don't run on labor. Economies run on ideas. So the work of innovation, the work of coming up with new ideas, is some of the most powerful, most fundamental work that we can do in an economy. And this is kind of how we used to do innovation. We'd find a bunch of fairly similar-looking people ...
We'd take them out of elite institutions, we'd put them into other elite institutions and we'd wait for the innovation. Now —
as a white guy who spent his whole career at MIT and Harvard, I've got no problem with this.
But some other people do, and they've kind of crashed the party and loosened up the dress code of innovation.
So here are the winners of a Topcoder programming challenge, and I assure you that nobody cares where these kids grew up, where they went to school, or what they look like. All anyone cares about is the quality of the work, the quality of the ideas.
And over and over again, we see this happening in the technology-facilitated world. The work of innovation is becoming more open, more inclusive, more transparent and more merit-based, and that's going to continue no matter what MIT and Harvard think of it, and I couldn't be happier about that development.
I hear once in a while, "OK, I'll grant you that, but technology is still a tool for the rich world, and what's not happening, these digital tools are not improving the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid." And I want to say to that very clearly: nonsense. The bottom of the pyramid is benefiting hugely from technology. The economist Robert Jensen did this wonderful study a while back where he watched, in great detail, what happened to the fishing villages of Kerala, India, when they got mobile phones for the very first time. And when you write for the Quarterly Journal of Economics, you have to use very dry and very circumspect language. But when I read his paper, I kind of feel Jensen is trying to scream at us and say, "Look, this was a big deal. Prices stabilized, so people could plan their economic lives. Waste was not reduced — it was eliminated. And the lives of both the buyers and the sellers in these villages measurably improved."
Now, what I don't think is that Jensen got extremely lucky and happened to land in the one set of villages where technology made things better. What happened instead is he very carefully documented what happens over and over again when technology comes for the first time to an environment and a community: the lives of people, the welfares of people, improve dramatically.
So as I look around at all the evidence and I think about the room that we have ahead of us, I become a huge digital optimist and I start to think that this wonderful statement from the physicist Freeman Dyson is actually not hyperbole. This is an accurate assessment of what's going on. Our technologies are great gifts, and we, right now, have the great good fortune to be living at a time when digital technology is flourishing, when it is broadening and deepening and becoming more profound all around the world.
So, yeah, the droids are taking our jobs, but focusing on that fact misses the point entirely. The point is that then we are freed up to do other things, and what we're going to do, I am very confident, what we're going to do is reduce poverty and drudgery and misery around the world. I'm very confident we're going to learn to live more lightly on the planet, and I am extremely confident that what we're going to do with our new digital tools is going to be so profound and so beneficial that it's going to make a mockery out of everything that came before. I'm going to leave the last word to a guy who had a front-row seat for digital progress, our old friend Ken Jennings. I'm with him; I'm going to echo his words: "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords."
Thanks very much.
Robots and algorithms are getting good at jobs like building cars, writing articles, translating — jobs that once required a human. So what will we humans do for work? Andrew McAfee walks through recent labor data to say: We ain't seen nothing yet. But then he steps back to look at big history, and comes up with a surprising view of what comes next.
Andrew McAfee studies how information technology affects businesses and society.
Andrew McAfee studies how information technology affects businesses and society.