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The Productivity Gain: Where Is It Coming From And Where Is It Going To?

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核心提示:There are a lot of fears that technology of various sorts is going to reduce the need for human labor to a point where we may need to provide universal basic income, reduce the work week, and/or have mass unemployment.
By Rodney Brooks

There are a lot of fears that technology of various sorts is going to reduce the need for human labor to a point where we may need to provide universal basic income, reduce the work week, and/or have mass unemployment.

I have a different take on where things are headed.

I think we are undergoing a radical productivity gain in certain aspects of certain jobs. This will lead to lots of dislocation for the workers who are effected by it. 

At the same time, I think there will not be enough productivity gain in many parts of the world to compensate for an aging population. I am worried about a loss of standard of living because we will have too few human workers.

But in any case, we are going to have to change the relative value of some sorts of work that almost any person could do.

SOME DEFINITIONS
Note that digitalization has one more syllable than digitization, and the two words have different meanings. Worse than that, though, there is some disagreement on what each of these words mean. I will define them here as I understand them and as how I see more interesting writing using them.

Digitization is the process of taking some object or measurement, and rendering it in digital form. Scanning a paper document to produce a .pdf file is the digitization of the visible marks on the paper into a form that can be manipulated by a computer. 

Digitalization is replacing old methods of sharing information or the flow of control within a processes, with computer code, perhaps thousands of different programs running on hundreds or thousands of computers, that make that flow of information or control process amenable to new variations and rapid redefinition by loading new versions of code into the network of computers.

Digitization of documents originally allowed them to be stored in smaller lighter form (e.g., files kept on a computer disk rather than in a filing cabinet), and to be sent long distances at speed (e.g., the fax machine). Digitalization of office work meant that the contents of those digital representations of those documents were read and turned into digital representations of words that the original creators of the documents had written, and then the ‘meaning’ of those wordswas used by programs to cross index the documents, process work orders from them, etc., etc. That is the digitalization of a process.

WHERe IS THE PRODUCTIVITY GAIN COMING FROM?
Let’s look at an example of where digitalization has come together to eliminate a whole job class in the United States, the job of being a toll taker on a toll road or a toll bridge.

The tech industry might have gone after this particular job by building a robot which would take toll tickets (they were used to record where the car entered a toll road), and cash, including crumpled bills and unsorted change, from the reached out hand of a driver, then examined exactly what it was given, and finally returned changeto the outreached hand of the driver. This is what human toll takers routinely did. 

It would have been a very hard problem and today’s robotics technology could not have done the job. 

Instead the solution that now abounds is to identify a car by a transponder that it carries, and or reading its license plate. The car does not have to slow down and so there is an added advantage of reducing congestion.

This solution is typical of how digitalization leads to fewer people being needed for a task. 

It is not the robot replacing a person. It is a whole network of digitalized pathways being coordinated together to do a task which may have required many different people to support previously.

Digitalization is the source of the productivity increase, the productivity dividend.

Digitalization does not eliminate every human task.Digitalization itself cannot replace human dexterity.

As an example think about how fulfillment services such as Amazon have changed the retail industry. Previously goods were transported to many different retail outlets were arranged on shelves by stockers for consumers to see, and then they were handled by retail workers when a consumer was buying the object, taking it from the consumer to be scanned and handed back to the consumer.  And in between, retail workers had to retidy the shelves when consumers had looked at the goods, picked them up, and then put them down again without making a purchase. 

Today there are much fewer such steps. Consumers purchase their goods from a web page. The goods are taken to just a very few fulfillment centers across the country. Stocking the shelves there is done only once. Then the objects are picked and packed for a particular order by a human.

Increasingly digitalization is replacing human cognitive processes that are routine, despite in the past them requiring highly educated people. 

If there is a task step that absolutely involves physical interaction with a human that also is likely not yet ready to be eliminated. Large parts of elder care fall under this–we have no machines that can help an elderly person into or out of bed, that can help an unsteady elderly person get onto and off of a toilet, can wash a person who has lost their own dexterity or cognitive capability.

WHERe IS THE PRODUCTIVITY GAIN GOING TO?
First, a disclaimer. I am not an economist.

Second, an admission. I won’t let that stop me from blathering on about economic forces.

I am not worried at all that there will not be enough labor demand to go around. In fact I am worried that there still will not be enough labor.

Almost anyone will be able to find a job that they are mentally and physically capable of performing in this new dislocated labor market.The bad news is that those jobs may well not seem satisfying.

I think this is the real problem that we will face. How to make the jobs where we will have massive unfulfilled demand be attractive to those who are displaced by the productivity of of digitalization. 

Solving this actual problem, is still going to be a real challenge.

I HAVE NOT USED THE TERM AI
I have not talked about Artificial Intelligence, or AI, in this post.

I was recently at a conference on the future of work, and AI was the buzz word on everyone’s lips. AI was going to do this, AI was going to do that, there was an AI revolution happening. 

Most of the people saying this would not have heard of “AI” just three years ago, despite the fact that it has been around since 1956. I realized that the phrase “Artificial Intelligence”, or “AI”, has been substituted for the word “tech”. Everything people were saying would have made perfect sense three years ago with the word “tech” rather than today’s “AI”.

In this post I have talked about digitalization. Certainly, real actual AI, machine learning (ML), and other things that people understand as AI are going to be able to be deployed more quickly because of digitalization. So that is a big deal. But lots of the productivity gains from digitalization will not particularly rely on AI.


That is, unless we redefine AI as being a superset of any and every sort of digital tech. I am not ready to do that. Others may already be doing it.
 
 
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