Ned Ludd vs. Watson

The Eleonora Maersk is one of the very biggest ships in the world. At 1300 feet long (the Titanic was a mere 880), it can carry 15000 twenty foot trailers. And how big is the crew for the Eleonora? As explained in this Economist post, the answer is 19.

Shortly after reading this, I happened across another Economist piece called the Luddite Legacy. Here’s the short version: in terms of jobs, automation has always been tough in the short run (obsolete factories shed jobs) but beneficial in the long run (growing economy creates even more new jobs). But this happy story is being called into question, and here’s why: the robots and their concomitant robot brains are getting really good. It sounds like heresy to read such a thing on the Economist website, but there you have it. The piece starts off with this delightful, if apocryphal, story about Henry Ford II.

Henry Ford II [is] showing Walter Reuther, the veteran leader of the United Automobile Workers, around a newly automated car plant. “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues,” gibed the boss of Ford Motor Company. Without skipping a beat, Reuther replied, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

There you have it in a nutshell. You can fill the stores up with stuff, but somebody has to be making enough money to buy it.

Have we reached a tipping point where whole chunks of the economy can be vaporized by automation? Clearly it’s a theme that’s touching a collective nerve. Many people were creeped out by IBM’s Jeopardy-winning computer Watson.

Megan McArdle over at The Atlantic observes that the New New New Economy may well create exciting new jobs, but lots of people really prefer their crappy old boring jobs. But any job that’s predictable enough to be clearly spelled out is going to go away. It will either be outsourced or automated. As one tech blogger put it, “Unless you are awesome, you will be outsourced.”

But that’s not a problem for you, because you’re awesome, right?

So totally awesome.

One thought on “Ned Ludd vs. Watson”

  1. I’ve been real excited about this problem for the last few years, following the realization that there really isn’t anything about a human that we won’t be able to reverse engineer and surpass in economic competition, and that capitalism makes this consequence unavoidable.

    So the question is, how do we transition from our current economy & industry to one where everyone is unemployed? I’m convinced it is only a matter of time, though the uncertainty is so great, it seems plausible that it could happen anywhere from 20 to 200 years—which are really just stabs in the dark anyway. I think the important part is that smart people start studying the problem and looking for solutions.

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