Keynes reminded us that when the facts change, we need to change our opinions. His words have been much in my head lately because the discussion about tech progress and its implications has heated up recently. Throughout May, for example, the US National Public Radio show Planet Money has been presenting episodes about technology and the future of work. The finale of the series was a point-counterpoint on the topic between me and a fellow MITer, economist David Autor.

I always learn a lot from reading David’s work and listening to him, so this was a treat. When I spoke, I acknowledged that people had been warning about technological unemployment for more than 200 years, and that events had time and time again proven them wrong: job opportunities and wages grew steadily, even as powerful new technologies appeared and populations expanded.

I tried to explain why I think this time might be different. I highlighted that digital technologies have in recent years made rapid, deep, and unprecedented incursions into humans’ skills and abilities — everything from natural language processing to pattern recognition to coming up with good new ideas to mastering a new task — and that they’re just getting warmed up. Over the next 20-40 years, which was the timeframe I was looking at, I predicted that vehicles would be driving themselves; mines, factories, and farms would be largely automated; and that we’d have an extraordinarily abundance economy that didn’t have anything like the same bottomless thirst for labour that the Industrial Era did.

As expected, I found David’s comments in response to this line of argument illuminating. He said: “If we’d had this conversation 100 years ago I would not have predicted the software industry, the internet, or all the travel or all the experience goods … so I feel it would be rather arrogant of me to say I’ve looked at the future and people won’t come up with stuff … that the ideas are all used up.”

This is exactly right. We are going to see innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity that I can’t even begin to imagine (if I could, I’d be an entrepreneur or venture capitalist myself). But all the new industries and companies that spring up in the coming years will only use people to do the work if they’re better at it than machines are. And the number of areas where that is the case is shrinking — I believe rapidly.

As a result, I’m a lot less confident than David is that business innovation will generate tons of demand for labour at all skill levels, as has been the case for a couple of hundred years. He quoted his mentor and coauthor Larry Katz as advising that “I like history, and I like science fiction, but I think history is a more reliable guide to the future.”

The more examples I see of science fiction technologies becoming reality these days, the less confidence I have in that ground rule. And the louder I hear Keynes’s words …

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