El Periódico de Cataluña
The Marvelous Tragedy
May 2016, article published originally in El Periódico de Catalunya
The Marvelous Tragedy
No, it’s not the title of the latest Spielberg film. In 2010, Google announced via a post on its blog – they didn’t even think it was worth the organization of a press conference, trivial matter as it was – that for the first time in history they had achieved a car that could drive itself from one point to another without human intervention. In 2012, Forbes published a magnificently written article that discussed the valuation of Apple stock. The catch: it was done by a computer. No hominid with a sense of humor had participated. And we needn’t go further to find another example, as most of us carry them in our coat pockets. For years cell phones have possessed intelligent “conversation” systems, capable of transcribing messages, locating an address on a map, creating a route to get from A to B, or noting an appointment (by the way, I suggest you try having one cell phone converse with another; it’s the closest thing I’ve heard to a chat between a married couple of 20 years: they say everything but talk about nothing). These are all systems of artificial intelligence. And they are marvelous. Because they make our lives a lot easier. We delegate to machines tasks that would have been unthinkable until recently. And this is the extraordinary part: to stop doing tedious and monotonous work in order to dedicate our time to creative and innovative activities.
This is the first time in human history that technological development isn’t going hand in hand with the creation of employment, since machines have now begun to think
The tragedy is what’s happening with employment and no one is talking about it. And that is if we have automated driving systems, we will see millions of truck drivers, taxi drivers, and chauffeurs lose their jobs. If we have a cell phone that is capable of managing our schedule, many secretarial tasks lose their meaning. If artificial intelligence systems can answer phones, what will happen to receptionists? And we could go on including any number of occupations. What is happening is that for the first time in human history technological development isn’t going hand in hand with the creation of employment because machines have begun to think. A little while ago, I heard Andrew MacAfee, a researcher from MIT, the prestigious Boston business school, explain how we were contemplating a separation between greater productivity measured in GDP and the generation of employment. In general, until the turn of the millennium, both concepts had evolved more or less in line with one another. If the economy grew, the number of people working increased. And they did so thanks to technology. That is, technological development allowed the generation of more productivity, and this, in turn, more work. On the other hand, since the year 2000, the more the technology, the more the productivity but less work. The virtuous circle has been broken. The change has been too abrupt. Technology is moving faster than what our job market can absorb. We’re not prepared. Will our politicians look for solutions to this marvelous tragedy?