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Peering into our Robot Future

Australian Andrew Leigh weighs the future of work, inequality, and towel-folding robots

lee speaking
Andrew Leigh discusses what we have to fear from breakthroughs in robot technology at his October 27 lecture.

Driverless Google cars have traveled more than 1 million miles on U.S. highways, one of three couples stands at the altar because of a dating algorithm, and computers regularly beat chess and Jeopardy champions. According Australian parliamentarian Andrew Leigh, these are but a few examples of how technological breakthroughs currently affect our lives—with more to come. 

While these examples of artificial intelligence might seem “cool” to the well-educated with six-figure salaries, Leigh argues that we should probably be a little more “scared” about more radical, future developments and how they might make some workers worse off.

“We need to intertwine our understanding of technology with recognizing its impact on inequality,” he cautioned.

Leigh, a former academic who is now a sitting member of Australia’s center-left Labor Party and one of its leaders, discussed “Humans Need Not Apply: Will the Robot Economy Pit Entrepreneurship Against Equality” on October 27 as IPR’s Fall 2015 Distinguished Public Policy Lecturer on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.

The event, co-sponsored with the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, was IPR’s first Distinguished Public Policy Lecture to feature an international speaker. Nearly 80 guests attended, including students, faculty, and the Australian Consul General to Chicago, Michael Wood.

“IPR is really interested in social policy globally written, and Andrew is the first Distinguished Public Policy lecturer who is not coming because of service in Washington, but because of service in Canberra,” said IPR education economist and Director David Figlio, in introducing him.

“Andrew Leigh is a prominent legislator with social science training, whose stimulating presentation addressed global trends in work and employment,"said Bruce Carruthers, the Buffett Institute’s director. "In other words, he was the perfect person to connect social science research with globally relevant public policy, precisely where IPR and the Buffett Institute find common ground."

The Reality of Technological Displacement

Leigh quickly turned to one of the most famous ideas in science fiction, the singularity—the turning point when computers’ capacity surpasses human intelligence and control.

While the singularity sounds like far-out science fiction, he points out that a few humans do take it seriously, specifically Tesla’s Elon Musk, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, and Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. Policymakers, politicians, and academics should, too, Leigh argues. Even though the singularity might still be a few decades, or even centuries away, the consequences of computerization are already well in play today. 

“Academic audiences think of technological displacement as something that happens to someone else,” Leigh argued. This is because “workplaces overstuffed with PhDs are likely to benefit greatly from technology.” For example, advances in communications technology allow economists to procure more data faster and collaborate internationally. 

Economists, as well as veterinarians, lawyers, and politicians, applaud technological advances because they work in so-called “abstract” jobs, Leigh explained—those that “involve problem-solving, creativity, and teamwork.” Abstract jobs resist computerization, he added, because “they are tackling problems that do not have a closed-form solution.”

From left: Northwestern Provost Dan Linzer, Buffett
director Bruce Carruthers, Leigh, and IPR
director David Figlio converse before Leigh's lecture.

Interestingly, it is also unlikely that computers will take over manual jobs, such as cooking, cleaning, and security. Today’s robots are bad at categorizing objects—meaning tasks that are easy for humans, like folding laundry and cutting hair, are next to impossible for a robot to do as Leigh demonstrated in a YouTube video. It featured a UC-Berkeley robot clearly stumped by a towel, which it eventually folds … after spending eight minutes identifying it. 

The jobs that computers are most likely to take over from humans, Leigh said, are “routine” jobs, such as bookkeeping and repetitive manufacturing tasks. These jobs are vulnerable because “they involve following established rules.” 

The mechanization of routine jobs leads to a chain reaction: “As workers in middle-paid jobs have become redundant, they have cascaded down to compete with those in low-paid jobs,” Leigh said. “The net result is that, for those in the bottom half of the U.S. wage distribution, earnings after inflation are back in the Brady Bunch [early 1970s] era.”

Combatting Inequality with Policy

The more we advance technologically, the more potential there is to increase the wage gap as well. So “we need to make sure we have policies in place that exert the opposite pressure—towards a more equal distribution of resources,” Leigh said.

One solution he offered was to find ways to help people make more seamless transitions between jobs, through offering retraining programs, for instance. At the same time, Leigh noted, the declining academic aptitude of American teachers has likely resulted in lower gains in student test scores. This means classrooms are less likely to turn out those with a “love of learning,” who are motivated to learn new skills on the job—underscoring the need for policies that improve teacher quality.

Since the computerization of routine jobs would drive down wages for those working manual jobs, Leigh also suggested implementing policies to “help low-wage consumers get a better deal,” from revising competition policy to regulating the sharing economy.

Lastly, he recommended thinking of creative ways to help individuals earning low wages accumulate capital, such as making houses more affordable and using tax incentives to help people build retirement savings.

“Scared, yet?” Leigh quizzed the audience. He concluded, “The singularity may be decades away. But robots are widening the gap today, and we need smarter policies in response.”

Andrew Leigh represents Fraser in the Parliament of Australia’s House of Representatives and also serves as Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Shadow Minister for Competition. He is an elected fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. David Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics and IPR Director. Bruce Carruthers is John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Director, Buffett Institute for Global Studies.

For more, read a complete transcript of Leigh’s lecture. You can also listen to his WBEZ Worldview interview with Jerome McDonnell.