Torrey: A Holistic, Historical Examination of AI and the Future of Work
Friday, August 30, 2019 | 383 | 0 | min read
A frequently voiced social concern, universally, is the perceived growing threat of artificial intelligence (AI) to eliminate the jobs of millions of workers.
The concern is voiced by workers’ compensation lawyers and others in the community in a more narrow, existential way. If the number of jobs is significantly truncated, particularly those in the industrial sector, will workers’ compensation become superannuated, and along with it those who labor in the dispute resolution process?
A healthy commentary exists in this realm. In a new book, Oxford University economic historian Carl Benedikt Frey takes a retrospective/historical look at the situation and tries to predict the future from experiences of the past. The book is "Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation" (Princeton Univ. Press 2019).
Frey, a specialist in studying technology and employment, has, along with his colleague Mark Osborne, published several widely read articles on this topic the last three years. The book is thick but, in the end, highly readable and a balanced, up-to-date treatment of this burning socio-legal issue.
The book does not focus on industrial injuries. Still, the advance of AI, and the replacement of human labor with robots and/or other labor-saving innovations, holds the portent that many of the injuries and deaths encountered in the present day will be eliminated in the future.
An attractive feature of the book is the author’s attention to the workers whose jobs are threatened by AI. Will they simply accede, as they did with computerization, to the elimination of jobs, or will they seek government action to suppress AI innovation? Meanwhile, will workers be attracted more and more to populist movements, fired by resentment of elites who seem most advantaged by job-threatening technological processes?
A key focus of the book is explaining that the advance of technology has, since the 18th century — first in England and then in the United States — affected labor in two ways. The first effect is from technology that simply replaces jobs that were theretofore undertaken by human labor.
Frey’s example, throughout, is that of gas lamplighters. With the invention of the light bulb, such jobs were simply eliminated.
The second effect is from technology that, in contrast, enables workers to undertake the same or similar jobs with greater ease, and hence with greater productivity, and/or which generates new, theretofore uncontemplated, jobs.
Frey again uses electrification as an example, here with the technological marvel of the lighting and powering of factories. Between lighting, which allowed longer hours of work, and the powering of motors to drive manufacturing processes, workers could be more productive, avoid dangerous conditions and, ultimately, achieve greater wages.
Of course, workers are better off when technology generates jobs that are of the enabling sort, as opposed to that which totally eliminates jobs. However, even with enabling technology, history has shown that a period of adjustment, which he calls “Engels’ Pause,” may exist.
During such a period, workers may be displaced from their customary employments, and experience depressed wages and other social and economic disruption. This phenomenon is most vividly illustrated by the Luddites, with their rebellion against mechanization and their destruction of labor-replacing machinery. Their revolt against innovation was not based on some abstract devotion to custom and tradition but, instead on the real threat of unemployment and other socioeconomic upheaval.
On this point, Frey, throughout, makes an observation that may be counterintuitive. In this regard, over the centuries, rulers — particularly monarchs — often joined in the suppression of technological development because of social disruption. They feared that the population, particularly enterprises like craft guilds, would turn against them.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, commercial interests in England gained formidable political clout and began to displace landed aristocratic interests. With this change in power structure, the government began supporting technological innovation.
Indeed, the army was called out to crush the Luddites. Meanwhile, the new governing elites did nothing (at first) to prevent factory owners from replacing able-bodied men with women and children — who could easily, and cheaply, labor at the new machinery.
In any event, the pattern over the last two centuries has been for government to support technological innovation in the workplace. The anxiety over displaced (and displeased) workers has persisted, but the typical response, with a few exceptions, has been retraining programs and unemployment compensation.
Frey thoroughly covers the past in trying to predict the AI future. Most familiar to the current reader will be how workers and society reacted to such things as the automation of automobile and other factories, the invention of the typewriter, and computerization of innumerable processes. By and large, these technologies have been ones of enablement, however hard for some the transition.
In contrast, Frey believes that AI is full of replacement-of-jobs potentialities. He identifies, in particular, truck driving. The coming loss of jobs to autonomous vehicles in this area is especially critical, as truck driving is a leading form of employment in virtually all states. He ponders, as noted at the outset, whether those currently employed in the field, and in other entry-level and low-skilled jobs, will simply roll over in the face of the phenomenon.
The author seems certain that at least some workers will suffer through another Engel’s Pause period of adjustment, such as was encountered so painfully during the initial phase of the industrial revolution.
The author’s final chapter is devoted to recommendations to make the period of adjustment easier. First and foremost is the promotion of education; it is the non-educated who, in the wake of IA innovations, will suffer the most.
The second is retraining and a more flexible approach to educating the displaced. Frey also discusses wage insurance, tax credits (he is unsympathetic to universal basic income), decreased regulation — licensure of skilled jobs (which he favors), relocation, and modifying transportation systems to connect displaced workers in one area to others where work is plentiful.
In the end, Frey has no hard answers to the labor issue in the age of automation, but a considered reading of his book is thought-provoking and, gratifyingly, places the issue in detailed historical context.
David B. Torrey is adjunct professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and a workers’ compensation judge with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. This entry is republished from the Workers' Compensation Law Professors blog, with permission.