The Race Against Artificial Intelligence
ByKevin Drum| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 1:30 PM PDT
A pair of MIT economists, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have written a new book suggesting thatcomputers are finally getting smart enough to do jobs that only people could do in the past. Nothing newthere. But they've joined a (still small) but growing number of observers who are afraid that the jobs beingdisplaced are being displaced for good:Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machinescapabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech,translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidlymoving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales—parts of the services sector,which provides most jobs in the economy.During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example.And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology forpeople, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending onequipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.…Productivity growth in the last decade, at more than 2.5 percent, they observe, is higher thanthe 1970s, 1980s and even edges out the 1990s. Still the economy, they write, did not add to itstotal job count, the first time that has happened over a decade since the Depression.In the same way that investors get giddy when economic booms have lasted a long time (this time isdifferent!), there's always a danger of getting too pessimistic when an economic downturn lasts a long time.