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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Technology creates jobs as much as it destroys them

It's a good thing we don't all have to dig the fields by hand

My Times column is on technology and jobs:

Bill Gates voiced a thought in a speech last week that is increasingly troubling America’s technical elite — that technology is about to make many, many people redundant. Advances in software, he said, will reduce demand for jobs, substituting robots for drivers, waiters or nurses.

The last time that I was in Silicon Valley I found the tech-heads fretting about this in direct proportion to their optimism about technology. That is to say, the more excited they are that the “singularity” is near — the moment when computers become so clever at making themselves even cleverer that the process accelerates to infinity — the more worried they are that there will be mass unemployment as a result.

The McKinsey Global Institute argued last year that perhaps 40 per cent of jobs in clerical and professional services could be automated by 2025. All sorts of professions, including accountants and even actors, should begin to fret. With Google’s driverless car having had just one (human-error) accident in 200,000 miles, there is every reason to suspect that taxi drivers are heading for the same fate as wick trimmers and ice harvesters.

For large stretches of every flight, pilots are already mere spectators; might an incident such as the Malaysian Airlines mystery make drone cockpits acceptable? Hal could come to seem more trustworthy than Dave. (No article about the future is complete without Arthur C. Clarke allusions — Dave being the astronaut who has to disconnect Hal, the sentient computer, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Will there be any jobs left for our children? A new book much talked about in techie circles, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolffson and Andrew McAfee, hedges its bets. The two authors accept that previous scares about technology leading to unemployment were overdone, but they are worried that this may not happen for ever. They have seen “one bastion of human uniqueness after another fall before the inexorable onslaught of innovation” and think that there may be no human activity immune to automation.

In the 1700s four in every five workers were employed on a farm. Thanks to tractors and combine harvesters, only one in fifty still works in farming, yet more people are at work than ever before. By 1850 the majority of jobs were in manufacturing. Today fewer than one in seven is. Yet Britain manufactures twice as much stuff by value as it did 60 years ago. In 1900 vast numbers of women worked in domestic service and were about to see their mangles and dusters mechanised. Yet more women have jobs than ever before.

Again and again technology has disrupted old work patterns and produced more, not less, work — usually at higher wages in more pleasant surroundings.

The followers of figures such as Ned Ludd, who smashed weaving looms, and Captain Swing, who smashed threshing machines (and, for that matter, Arthur Scargill) suffered unemployment and hardship in the short term but looked back later, or their children did, with horror at the sort of drudgery from which technology had delivered them.

Why should this next wave of technology be different? It’s partly that it is closer to home for the intelligentsia. Unkind jibe — there’s a sort of frisson running through the chatterati now that people they actually know might lose their jobs to machines, rather than the working class. Indeed, the jobs that look safest from robots are probably at the bottom of the educational heap: cooks, gardeners, maids. After many years’ work, Berkeley researchers have built a robot that can fold a towel — it takes 24 minutes.

None the less, it is hard to see where people go next. If we are reaching the point where robots could do almost anything, what is there left for people to do? To this I suggest two answers. The first is that we will think of something. Half the new professions that are thriving today are so bizarre that nobody could have predicted their emergence — reflexologist, pet groomer, ethical hacker, golfball diver. In a world where androids run supermarkets, you can bet that there’s a niche for a pricey little shop with friendly salespeople. The more bulk services are automated, the more we will be willing to pay for the human touch as well.

Automation has made us so much richer than our ancestors, by cutting the cost (in hours worked) of most of the services that we desire, that we have been able to afford to employ more and more people to amuse or pamper us. Most people can afford to eat out, for example — an unimaginable luxury only a century ago.

If the worst comes to the worst, and the androids take over absolutely every kind of work, providing all our daily needs so cheaply and efficiently that we just don’t need people at all, not even as politicians — why, then what’s the blooming problem? The point of work is so we can consume, not vice versa. Do not forget that the poor benefit more than most from automation — as consumers of ever cheaper goods and services.

Keynes predicted that we would eventually have more stuff than we needed and would start to ration work down to 15 hours a week. When you consider that we work far fewer days a year and hours a week than in his day, and make allowance for the fact that we spend much longer in education and retirement, we are already there in a sense. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “the goal of the future is full unemployment so we can play”.

In 1700 nearly all of us had to dig the soil from dawn to dusk or everybody starved (and some did anyway). Technology liberated us from that precarious and awful world. If it does so again, so that our grandchildren never have to think in terms of “jobs” at all, but merely in terms of how they can fill their days fulfilling their wishes and helping others, mixing bits of work with bits of leisure, while drawing on the output of Stakhanovite machines for income, will they envy us our daily commutes and our office politics? I don’t think so.

I might be wrong, but I think that of all the bad things that might happen in the world, beginning in Crimea, hyperproductive new robots are the least of our worries.