2017-02-14 —

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren't taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the "hollowing out" of the middle class. The problem isn't immigration--far from it. The problem isn't offshoring or taxes or regulation. It's technology.


In the US, the number of manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 and has steadily decreased ever since. At the same time, manufacturing has steadily increased, with the US now producing more goods than any other country but China. Machines aren't just taking the place of humans on the assembly line. They're doing a better job. And all this before the coming wave of AI upends so many other sectors of the economy. "I am less concerned with Terminator scenarios," MIT economist Andrew McAfee said on the first day at Asilomar. "If current trends continue, people are going to rise up well before the machines do."

One of the things that makes us leery about this postulate (that AI and robots are in a sense "permanently" reducing the demand for the human workforce) is that it assumes a historical counterfactual: that for the first time ever, technological advancement will destroy jobs instead of simply shift them around (or even create more), even as some jobs are undoubtedly directly eliminated.

We still harbor more than a sneaking suspicion that the biggest problem is actually the malignant state of the monetary and banking system, which puts a drag on business development and capital deployment. This might be hard to believe given the "startup bubble" we are in -- but consider that the wealth and control in this area is accruing to a smaller and smaller segment of the population. In a healthy monetary system, we suspect we would see more new businesses of a smaller size, but adding up to both more jobs and wealth in the overall economy.

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