Shaping Our Destiny – Exponentially

Karen MorrisBy: Karen A. Morris, Board Member, The Global Sourcing Council and Chair, GSC Women’s Empowerment Committee



Editor’s Introduction

There are many ways we assess the impact of robotics, in particular the way it is changing the sourcing workforce landscape for providers and suppliers. Our founding Board Member, the innovation strategist Karen Morris, provides unique insights into the paradox we face as a global community.
The fact is that June, my great grandmother, was a computer. The fear is that my son is not. Ours is not a cyborg-mutation story, although that fate may await my great grandchildren.

In 1924, “computer” was a job description. Computers, mostly women, tallied and tabulated numbers in neatly inked rows – a repetitive, robotic task 9 hours a day. An exhausting multiplication.

In 2014, June’s great-great-grandson enjoys great, great computing power. In a single device, he wields more computational capacity than the rocket that put a man on the moon. An extraordinary multiplication. And on the day you read this, our planet will multiply its computational prowess a thousand-fold. An exponential multiplication. For our children this is almost a shruggoffable statistic. These natives of a datafied, sensor-strewn world have no angst about the algorithms that know them taste to toe. My son rejoices that I-Robot’s Rumba cleans his (and several million other) floors.

The fear is that robots will one day wipe the floor with him, in the job market at least.

Computing Power

Immense computational power, inestimable troves of data, dissilient progress in robotics, advanced and inexorably advancing artificial intelligence, digital proliferation and combinatorial innovations in bio’ and nano’ technology together with 3D manufacturing, and more and more and more…what immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful synergy? Or should our mortal eye see the technologies we have framed as amazing, incredible tools in our human hands?

The fact is these science-fictional phenomena will drive my son’s car, or one he pools, translate his speech, locate his answers, do his tax returns, answer his insurance queries, perform the due diligence when his company is sold, replace a lost limb or organ, and diagnose his health. Eventually they will do all that we imagine and much that we can’t yet. Technologies, in short, will coalesce into a perpetual platform for wondrous innovation and will delete forever certain jobs.

The fear is here.

We have been there before. From stone hand axe and stick as plough to plume and printing, boat and bullet, how we shape our tools shapes us. But of course the really disruptive technology, the innovation that changed the course of history to a degree never seen before or since… until now…was James Watt’s combinatorial reinvention of the steam engine around 1775-6.

“Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny.”
– Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Watt catalyzed the Industrial Revolution; although the steam revolution took twenty years or so to unfold, in the words of anthropologist Ian Morris “it was, nonetheless, the biggest and fastest transformation in the history of the world.” What steam started, uncoupling energy generation from the mere muscles of man and beast, led to factories and mass production, to railways and mass transportation, to an unprecedented capacity for human societies “to master their physical environment to get things done.” As Morris phrased it, the transformational significance of our ability to generate massive amounts of mechanical power “made a mockery of all the drama of the world’s earlier history”.

Technological Propellants

The Industrial Revolution has been described as mankind’s First Machine Age, the first time that human progress was propelled primarily by technological innovation. And propelled it was, leading to a further explosion in technological advances in the late and early Twentieth Century dubbed by some economic historians the Second Industrial Revolution. Progress brought prosperity but not for everyone. Not at first.

Ned Ludd, a militant textile worker, led English mill workers displaced by automated looms to attack mills and machineries; similar uprisings occurred on the Continent of Europe. Clog- wearing (sabos) workers also destroyed the machines menacing their livelihoods. The former entered our lexicon with the word Luddite, the latter gave us sabotage. Not only workers but economists too expressed their fears through the 19th Century and beyond that automation would ultimately prejudice workers’ jobs and pay.

In oversimplified terms, these fears went unrealised in the long run albeit after a brutally exploitative start. Technology advances and increases in labor productivity in the last two centuries did benefit workers enabling higher wages and buoying the real value of those wages through falling prices. Labor productivity and private employment grew in tandem and labor compensation rose alongside the profits, dividends and capital gains accruing to capital providers. Living standards improved. Until the last dozen years. The same decade or so that has seen such exponential digital technology developments.

The decade we describe as initiating mankind’s Second Machine Age, one as ineluctably transformational as the first (even if wage gains have been lower than productivity gains since the 1980’s). Since 2000, a strange disparity has emerged. In the USA, corporate profits have risen 100 percent but median household income, adjusted for inflation has not. The fact is, it has fallen from $55,986 to $51,017. Over this same period, corporate profits as a share of gross domestic product more than doubled, rising from six to eleven percent. Employee compensation as a proportion of gross domestic product declined by four percent.

Robotic handshakeThis is not a U.S. monopoly. Wages have flat-lined across the developed world with real-pay average rises at 0.2% last year. In certain rich economies other than the USA, workers are also now earning less than in 2007, for example Italy, the U.K. and Japan. Asia and Eastern Europe have seen 6% pay growth whereas Africa and Latin America averaged barely 1%. Workers share of economic growth has also shrunk in China, Mexico and Turkey.

The fear is that automation is to blame. It’s not just that automation is doing more; it’s doing what we thought it never would. Only ten years ago, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane’s “The New Division of Labor” proffered insights into the divisions between human and digital work. We had reason to be confident back then that certain things could be done well by computers, such as rule-based applications, however complex. We saw IBM’s Big Blue trounce Gary Kasparov at chess in 1997. And yet, low-level sensorimotor skills like kicking a ball and high-level complex communication eluded the machine. Autonomous cars crashed, robots stumbled on steps, translations were awful. As the roboticist Hans Moravec explained: “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”

This dichotomy, known as Moravec’s paradox, suggested that high-level reasoning was in the purview of computers; however, ordinary skills based on our human capacity for pattern recognition, that require sensing the physical world and navigating the body through it, would rest securely in the human domain. What a difference a decade makes. Autonomous cars, like Google’s and sensing automatons like Rethink Robotic’s Baxter are piercing the paradox. Computers and robots are on an aggressive trajectory to qualify ever more often and ever more competently as substitutes for human labor. Must you be a Luddite to be worried that this may sabotage rather than sustainable human progress?

Measuring People’s Well-Being

The European Union in concert with The Conference Board and Cornell University convened a symposium last autumn of economists and financiers to interrogate the relationship between evolutions in technology and employment depletion or creation. The experts were unanimous in their conclusions. No, just kidding, but I had you for a moment. We do not have, some argued, sufficient understanding of the nexus between job losses and automation. It is hard to decipher causation from correlation.

There are other contributory factors such as globalisation and work relocation and the seemingly inexorable decline in organised labor. The critical question is whether we should cleave to the convention that increased productivity remains an apposite proxy for people’s economic health. In a 2009 report, economists Amartya Sen of Harvard University, Jean-Paul Fitoussi of the Paris Institute of Political Studies and Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University argued “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being”.

The fact is that my sons’ and your daughters’ career choices will be changed dramatically by technology, even more than ours have. And our experience has not been trivial. Ask a secretary, a tool-cutter, a switchboard operator, a manual bookkeeper. There has been a persistent decline in so-called routine jobs since computers entered the fray in the 1980s and the trend is accelerating. From 2001 to 2011, 11% of routine jobs in the USA vanished. Recent research from the University of Oxford (Frey and Osborne) suggests that over 700 professional categories are vulnerable to complete substitution by automation. They include loan officers, stock analysts, check-out assistants, tax preparers, paralegals, taxi-drivers, locomotive engineers, even animal breeders.

The 700 will multiply. A disconcerting multiplication. Indeed, the oracular prediction of Carl Frey’s and Michael Osborne’s study puts 47 per cent of American jobs at high risk of automation in the coming years. If this is even a remotely correct approximation for the United States, what does it portend for the destination countries to which “low skill” US jobs were off-shored over the last quarter century and for their economies and employment levels? The fact is that these routine and structured functions are especially susceptible to automation and the corresponding fear is the devastating impact this would have on those countries’ workforce.

Nothing “must be” unless we allow it.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology anatomize with acuity the facts and fears swirling around the impacts of digital technologies in their important and provocative book “The Second Machine Age”. The authors do not retreat from dark diagnoses that, without action and change, many will continue to lose out to technology and that all of us are exposed to the risks inherent in our ever more complex and interlinked technological infrastructure. Nor do they fear a technological dystopia. Serendipitously for this December issue of The Source, the authors borrow from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” citing as metaphor Scrooge’s question to the Ghost of Christmas Future: “Is this what must be or what might be?” With ebullience, they urge us to take responsibility for what happens now. Nothing “must be” unless we allow it. In the authors’ aphorism “Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny.”

People cause economic growth by rearranging resources, machines included, to increase their value. Whether it’s my great, great grandmother’s generation or my son’s or ours, every generation fears the impact on growth of limited resources and the unintended, adverse consequences of technology. Yet, to paraphrase loosely the economist Paul Romer, every generation underestimates our potential for finding new ideas and we consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered; if we grasped it, we would compute that possibilities do not merely add up, they multiply. Leaving us to realise an optimistic multiplication for human computers.

About the Author: Karen Morris is a strategic advisor to national and multinational companies. She is also a frequent speaker and writer on innovation and leadership at global forums and conferences around the world.

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