Automation Clickbait

NYTimes: “The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite

I figure a month is a safe time to let go by before writing about a press hot-button topic from late January: Robots, Automation and the plots of the Elite.

I say this in a tongue in cheek manner because while there are some real challenges with AI, Automation and economic realities (and there may even be plans by some to pursue paths which exacerbate these challenges), a huge part of the problem with AI, Automation and Robotics is how poor the public discourse is. If you can’t have a factual debate without finger pointing, there is little hope of actually addressing the problem.

In an article that was particularly caught my eye, Kevin Roose in the New York Times uses the title “The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite“. In the opening he goes on to say:

They’ll never admit it in public, but many of your bosses want machines to replace you as soon as possible.


“In Davos, executives tend to speak about automation as a natural phenomenon over which they have no control, like hurricanes or heat waves. They claim that if they don’t automate jobs as quickly as possible, their competitors will.”

I wasn’t in Davos, so I don’t know what those hallway conversations were like. What the article and others like it do, however, is to suggest a conspiratorial slant to these considerations which almost certainly isn’t there for most executives.

Automation, AI and robotics do indeed represent a massive social challenge. However turning it into a “conspiracy theory” that CEO are running against their workers is an unhelpful focus in the debate. In reality:

  • Market forces are a genuine driver for firms to look at automating. This has already happened in many industries from manufacturing to agriculture.(1) In the absence of social agreements and restrictions, it is actually critical for firms to consider the innovations they should apply. If they do not, their competitors (local or not) are likely to do so, potentially killing these firms entirely.
  • Consumers, in western societies at least, consistently seek faster, more automated products and services at lower costs. There is clear personal logic to this: a household budget only goes so far. While I may stretch for some luxury purchases, in many areas cheap and effective is the rational choice. This pressure is a real economic force to be dealt with.

Most CEOs and executive teams do have their employees welfare in mind and there is clear concern about public reactions in the very least. However, they face a genuinely difficult set of choices to navigate.

In the article, the author does at least acknowledge some of the realities at play by quoting Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of M.I.T.’s Initiative on the Digital Economy “The choice isn’t between automation and non-automation. It’s between whether you use the technology in a way that creates shared prosperity, or more concentration of wealth.”

As Brynjolfsson points out, there is a genuinely challenging social problem here. Our current market and social system do not leave companies real free choice as to whether to automate or not: it is an inevitability. This is, in turn, surfaces an even deeper challenge. The contract between labor and capital has always been structured as “Capital funds production, workers produce and earn, workers subsequently consume goods/services and in turn fuels returns for production”. With advanced automation, two of the three pillars of this bargain fail: capital can produce without labor, and labor (without pay) no longer has the means to purchase goods and services.

The key questions then really become:

  1. What types of AI/Robots/Automation do we create? Will they be for pure human replacement? Or systems that enable humans to become more productive and creative? The former cuts humans out of the economic loop. The later potentially enhances their role.
  2. Who owns the Robots? The broader the base of those who receive some of the economic benefits of AI/Robots/Automation the more likely it is that there can be positive social benefits.

One could also argue against permitting any more automation at all. However, such prohibition is unlikely to work at a global scale (not all countries are likely to buy in) or for a long time (accumulating needs may well lead to the removal of prohibitions). So there are important debates to be had.

Until these debates progress, most companies will remain on the inevitable treadmill towards automation. It’s unhelpful to paint this as a conspiracy of CEOs. It is society reaching the limits of the current way structuring the economic system.

Photo by Frank Wang on Unsplash.

(1) Over the last 100 years for example, the percentage of Americans engaged in agricultural work has dropped from 30% of the working population to just 1.5%. See for example this NYT reprint from 1988 and FRED data on agricultural employment.

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