Conversational Presentation of Why Automation is Different This Time



I have been frustrated recently with my inability to efficiently participate in discussions of automation which crop up online and in person. The purpose of the post is to refine a conversational presentation of what I believe to be the salient concerns; the chief goals are brevity and clarity, but obviously corrections of fact supersede this.

Epistemic status: plausible causal conjecture.

I think the current wave of automation will be different from previous ones, in ways which make it more disruptive. There are three reasons for this:

No Fourth Sector: The economy has three broad sectors: agriculture, manufacturing, and services. The first wave was in agriculture, and people could find adjacent work or switched to working in manufacturing. The second wave was in manufacturing, and people could find adjacent work or switched to work in services. The current wave is affecting services, but there is no fourth sector of the economy left for workers to switch to.

Skills Over Jobs: Agricultural automation was largely about tasks: a digging machine, a seeding machine, a pulling machine. Manufacturing automation took this to the next level, with robots performing defined sequences of tasks. But in both cases these were specific - any task or series of tasks which had not been specifically automated was still work to be had. The new wave of automation is entire skillsets, like apply this pattern or the ability to speak. This means when a job is lost to automation, all similar jobs are going away at the same time. There will be no adjacent work for people to switch to.

Speed: When automation was physical machines, they had to design them, and build them, and ship them, and customers had to rebuild their own factories to use manufacturing robots. Modern automation is largely software driven, so design and build are the same process, which is then practically free to copy and distribute. As soon as the method is ready, it can be picked up by businesses as fast as they can rent server space to run it. This gives local economies and institutions like government very little time to respond.

Automation is different this time because the problems we experienced last time will be more severe, and more widespread, and happen faster.