Postmodern Conservative

The Next Technology Revolution and the Challenge for Reform Conservatism

Vinod Khosia has managed to say a lot in a few words about the consequences of “the next technology revolution.” Let me just list some points for discussion:

1. That revolution comes when it’s finally possible to construct “systems with judgment and decision-making capability more sophisticated and nuanced than trained human judgment.” And it’s coming soon. We can already see that “machine learning, sometimes called big data or artificial intelligence, is making rapid progress in complex decision-making.”

2. The result:  increased productivity, abundance, and income disparity.

3. Income disparity will increase (and jobs — especially good jobs — will become fewer) because “With less need for human labor or judgment, labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to machine learning technology.” As Tyler Cowen says, those who can readily work with genius machines will get much richer, while most ordinary jobs–being more scripted and tied to machines — will be either disappear or devolve in the direction of mere subsistence.

4. “In past economic history, each technology revolution — while replacing some jobs — has created more new types of job opportunities and productivity improvements, but this time could be different. . . . Historically, technology augmented and amplified human capability, which increased the productivity of human labor. . . . However, if machine learning technologies become superior in both intelligence and the knowledge required for a particular job, human employees may be rendered unnecessary or in the very least, they will be in far less demand and command lower pay.” Creative destruction may continue to produce jobless (or worse than jobless) recoveries. We will have less and less reason to praise the most productive Americans for being job creators. (Consider, to begin with, the situation in Silicon Valley.)

5. Because “economic theory is largely based on an extrapolation of the past rather than causality,” it may be slow, or worse, to come to terms with this unprecedented change most people might not want to believe in.

6. A reasonable position is ”We should be embracing technology, not fearing it, and that means educating and training Americans to perform more-skilled jobs.” But it’s not so reasonable to believe that additional training alone can really address adequately what is, in truth, far more than a minor problem.

7.  It’s reasonable to worry that “even with access to better education and skills, not enough humans could adapt quickly enough to outperform intelligent software systems.” At one point in the evolution of the division of labor, there was “the transition away from the agrarian economy” as human physical labor lost the battle with the engine. Now, “we might lose the mental battle.” Or, more precisely, most of us may lose that battle.

8. There will still be “new jobs . . . based on human intelligence or creativity.” That means that “the top 10 to 20 percent of any profession . . . will continue to do well.” The news might be really bad for the bottom 80 percent who aren’t part of the cognitive elite. Most of what, say, lawyers and doctors do can be replaced by machines, but not everything. So for most attorneys the main fact today is disappearing jobs and declining compensation for those that remain. But the top lawyers are doing better than ever. And we can already see that our best schools are getting better than ever, while most of them are getting worse, and a similar comment could be made about the general level of parenting.

9. It might also be reasonable to worry that the income “disparity beyond a certain point will lead to social unrest.” And that worry comes from someone who’s “a fan of some inequality (read ‘incentives to work hard’) but lots of social mobility.” Considerable inequality with lots of mobility is, of course, at the core of the American middle-class morality of free beings who work for themselves. I would add, as I have before, that Cowen speculates that the diversions we all enjoy on the screen — perhaps facilitated by legalized marijuana — may keep the, at best, marginally productive from being animated by revolutionary hatred. The creepier possibility is the emergence of an idiocracy lacking the character-forming stability of relational responsibilities, but that hasn’t quite been reduced to nothing.

10.  ”In an era of abundance and increasing income disparity, we may need a version of capitalism that is focused on more than just efficient production and also places greater prioritization on the less desirable side effects of capitalism.”

11. The above recommendation comes from an undaunted optimist about the unprecedented freedom and prosperity to come from the progress of capitalism and technology. And certainly I agree that the Piketty approach of government redistribution is no solution. Nor is any attempt to use government policy to put brakes on technological development. It remains the case that our efforts to subordinate the blessings of modern freedom and technology to properly human purposes is an intricate trial of our free will. The reform conservatives, begin with Yuval Levin, are aware of this deeply relational challenge.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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