Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Automation and Labor

FT Alphaville recently had a thought experiment on how things would have gone if "the US, rather than taking advantage of cheap labour in China, had kept things at home and heavily invested in automation".

This is one of my favorite themes: the rise of automation in manufacturing and its effects on the global economic balances. Recently, over the past year or so, multiple research publications and journals (such as the FT, The Economist, GS, BofA, BCG, Gavekal, ISI) have featured this supposed inevitable renaissance as robotics and 3D printing revitalize manufacturing in the US.

It's an exciting and sexy theme I will probably cover in greater detail in the future. Today, however, I am interested in very specific component: labor.


Low-cost production techniques could soon become so advanced and so low cost — thanks to developments like 3D printing — that even the tiniest salaries in Africa will not make it worthwhile to employ human beings at all.

In the 1800's, the Luddites were a group of disgruntled skilled weavers who displayed their discontent by destroying the automated looms that made it possible to hire unskilled (and cheaper) labor in their place. Of course, in hindsight, these productivity-enhancing machines were a good thing: it freed up future generations of educated men and women towards more interesting work, e.g. as innovators of new industries. In other words, would-be weavers became engineers, inventors, thinkers, etc. instead.

Are we falling prey to this Luddite fallacy today? It's clear that on its own, automation cannot be said to be a job-killer. Generally, as the prices of goods fall with the productivity gain made possible by automation, demand for goods increases, which results in increasing demand for labor. This gives us more employment, rather than less.

However, the current round of automation (the third industrial revolution, as The Economist likes to put it) is potentially different.

This is unlike the job destruction and creation that has taken place continuously since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as machines gradually replaced the muscle-power of human labourers and horses. Today, automation is having an impact not just on routine work, but on cognitive and even creative tasks as well. A tipping point seems to have been reached, at which AI-based automation threatens to supplant the brain-power of large swathes of middle-income employees.

In previous industrial revolutions, machines replaced our "hardware", that is, our bodies and our physical labor (bad analogy, but let's roll with it). This was fine, because as long as our ideas added value and machines couldn't automate our thought processes, we could remain employed in an intellectual capacity. However, machines are now able to simulate many of our thought processes - and not just the purely computational ones - with the industrial implementation of artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques. Machines are now replacing our "software", that is, our minds and our intellectual labor.

Modern Luddites like to point at today's unprecedented levels of long term unemployment as evidence for this. However, if this were true, why is there continuing high demand for skilled workers?

Nearly 60 percent of survey participants expect to increase their workforce (compared to 50 percent in the fall), but finding qualified workers to fill open positions continues to be a concern for the industry – an unusual dichotomy, given that national unemployment rate remains high," said Kurek. "The need for a skilled workforce could be one of the greatest impediments to growth for U.S. manufacturers and distributors, and makes it difficult to compete in the global market."


For many manufacturers, finding the best people to fill these new positions is far from assured. Respondents to's IMB lament the skilled labor shortage, and are vocal about what needs to be done to fill the gap. One noted that we need to "improve the attitude within the U.S. regarding the desirability of manufacturing for the next generation." And many respondents want to see education reform with the aim of giving America's youth the skills needed to join the manufacturing workforce.

Usually, automation draws labor demand away from the high-skilled towards the low-skilled. So what is going on here?

Perhaps it's simply a matter of perspective.

Skills and Training

In the long term, it may be true that we are on the cusp of a post-scarcity world of maximal leisure and obsolete labor thanks to the ever increasing intelligence of machines. In the short term, however, human intellectual capital is very much in demand.

[In the 1990s] the US went for massive outsourcing. However, Germany and Northern Europe in general went for automation. The reason why the latter region went for automation is that they were already fighting high labour costs as early as 1980, so they already were well on the path to automation.
At least in Northern Europe, the big automation revolution that we saw starting around 1980 seems to be coming to an end. The reason is the full exhaustion of engineers/skilled technical workers.

This is why some have proposed working hour limits, e.g. instead of a few investment bankers working 100 hour weeks, twice as many bankers working 50 hour weeks are hired. Of course, the policy's track record isn't that great (consider France's 35 hour/week limit and look at their economy) and furthermore, it falls victim to the lump of labor fallacy. However, this perhaps helps us in understanding the liberal's curious characterization of an ambitious overachiever taking excessive overtime for himself as somehow "greedy" due to his theft of his fellow man's labor hours. Compare with a conservative's view that all hard work is deserved and efficiently allocated to those who are most deserving.

However, considering the theory that we are on the cusp of a post-scarcity world, perhaps the liberal is right.

We live in a world were there is too much work for highly educated workers and not enough work for low educated ones. This at a time of general decline in education standards as demonstrated by many PISA studies. The forces of the market would have it that wages of the educated will rise and wages of the non-educated will fall.

This is why we need cheap, effective and widely available STEM (science, tech, engineering, mathematics) training (and retraining) opportunities in the US. This is both for new entrants to the labor force as well as for existing workers who have been displaced. A "liberal arts" education may be more intellectually pure, but for the majority of the population, it's simply irresponsible. The German education system, which emphasizes vocational schools alongside industry apprenticeships, is a good model (already these are starting to pop up in the US). This would also serve to help students avoid taking on excessive student debt as costs are lower than traditional research universities, and full time offers are often made by the employer to their apprentices upon graduation. Businesses would also be more willing to hire new graduates (as opposed to experienced hires) as job-specific training has already been completed (avoiding expensive on-the-job training programs as in the US).

However, the fundamental problem remains that the exponential pace of technological progress may simply be too fast for the skills mismatch gap to close. This is why I am optimistic about online education opportunities such as Udacity, Coursera, Codecademy, iTunes U, which meet many of the above requirements for good STEM training: cheap (it's free), effective (taught by professors, some of whom are at Ivy League universities) and widely available (anyone with internet). Recently, Udacity announced that they will offering certification exams in Pearson testing centers in conjunction with their job placement program. Unlike inflexible bureaucratic universities, online education is subject to the free markets: courses are offered in the subjects where the demand is, course demand goes where the opportunities are. This should go a long way towards minimizing the skills mismatch gap.


Demand for unskilled labor will disappear or at least be significantly diminished. Although AI, robotics and 3D printing may have the potential to completely eliminate labor as a factor of production, as some modern Luddites claim, in the short term, the modern day equivalents of machine-operators (programmers, engineers, technicians) will be in high (and probably increasing) demand.

As the ultra-low labor costs in emerging markets no longer matter, jobs may initially come back to the the developed world. However, this job reshoring may be limited in impact as the emerging markets will seek to rapidly catch up (look at the growth of India's IT talent), especially as knowledge becomes freer and more easily available (such as through online courses). Thus, the most sustainable way for developed markets to compete will probably be through superior education and training.


  1. What then do you feel is the value of a liberal arts education if STEM training is becoming more desirable and those without such training (i.e. pure liberal arts majors) are being outcompeted in the job market?

    1. That's a good question that I bet a lot of unemployed college graduates are asking themselves now. While I agree that there's still a place for a broad cross-disciplinary curriculum (such as Columbia's Core), the truth is that specialization in the workforce is the dominant trend (I am mainly talking about industry, not academia, by the way).

      One counterargument is that ibankers and consultants commonly seek "well-rounded" hires (I've heard "we don't care what your major is" as an intellectual pseudo-diversity brag way too many times at career fairs), so there's still demand outside academia. I'd argue that those the those jobs will probably downsize due to 1) outsourcing and 2) automation in a decade or two.

  2. btw one interesting view that i've seen recently is that the skill gap between people is exponential and that world is going to be split between super high earners and people who are sustained by these earners through wealth transfers.

    ie. with technology, the super smart people (eg: the steve jobs of the world) can now scale infinitely and offer their superior services to everyone. so eventually, everybody but the steve jobs of the world can just "sit at home and play xbox". ie. do minimal work since their work (if not scalable) is tiny compared to say the $1b contribution from somebody doing good work that can scale.

    interesting viewpt/futuristic view

    1. I tend towards that view. Inequality is not a disequilibrium point; rather economic, technological and free mkt forces converge to greater and greater levels of inequality.