Humans Are Going the Way of Draft Horses

In his essay “Darwin Among the Machines” Samuel Butler wrote: “The machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them; more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life.  The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”

So the machines are starting to get really good.  If you’re not yet convinced of that, consider the fact that Google’s robotic cars have now safely completed more than 200,000 miles of computer-led driving.  Barring any major legal and cultural holdups, it’s possible that jobs like driving cabs and trucks will be obsolete within a decade.  That machines are displacing human workers is not necessarily a bad thing though.  In many ways, this is a sign of economic progress.  However, economic progress often comes with unintended social costs (e.g., unemployment).  If we think about humans as racing against machines for jobs, then some of the evidence shows that many people appear to be already losing the race.

As early as 1821, the economist David Ricardo recognized that unpleasant consequences will befall on an economy when machines become directly substitutable for human labor.  Historically, however, this hasn’t happened and people who fear that machines take jobs from humans are accused of believing in the Luddite Fallacy.  Despite the fears of Ned Ludd (and the Luddites), machines have been a complement to human labor through the entirety of the 20th century.    Will this be true in the 21st century though?  If not, then machines will likely cause what John Maynard Keynes famously called the disease of “technological unemployment” in his essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren“.

An interesting question to consider is the following: exactly whose jobs are the machines going to the take?  Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned by studying the “working horses” of the 18th century.  In Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms he wrote:

there was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

I recently finished reading Erik Brynjolfsson’s and Andrew McAfee’s book Race Against The Machine, which, by the way, was quite good.  In one section of the book they make the claim that “It can be easier to automate the work of a bookkeeper, bank teller, or semi-skilled factory worker than a gardener, hair dresser, or home health aide.”  This insight is taken from Moravec’s Paradox, which, according to Wikipedia, states that “high-level reasoning requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources.”  In other words, jobs that require vision, fine motor skills, and locomotion have been much harder to automate than ones that require fairly straightforward information processing.

I think the 21st century’s draft horses are the workers whose jobs don’t involve any innately human skills, like creativity.  Strangely, many of the jobs in danger of being lost to machines would be considered by many to be “white-collar” jobs.  For what it’s worth, I take one of Brynjolfsson’s and McAfee’s central claims very seriously, i.e., it’s not wise to try and compete with the machines.


One Comment on “Humans Are Going the Way of Draft Horses”

  1. Hermes says:

    Thanks for posting this.

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