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The view from Davos: Man vs machine

26 January 2014

10:31 PM

26 January 2014

10:31 PM

At Davos the choice each day is staggering:  in one single hour I could have gone to any one of nine different debates or workshops.

Youth unemployment was a big theme.  Europeans, we were told by Kenneth Rogoff, Prof of Economics at Harvard, are still in grave employment difficulties. The situation in Spain for example is critical, with 50% of its young people unemployed; and if they don’t work for the first four or five years of their working life, their long term earning power is far reduced – along with the taxes they should be paying.

The trouble is that as the economies of the world’s nations see productivity rise they also see jobs in decline, just disappearing. So is technological innovation in the 21st century driving jobless growth?   Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Centre for Digital Business, agreed that this is the great paradox of our era, that while innovation has never been faster, with greater productivity bringing record profits, the number of jobs is in decline. Software is eating the world; the digitisation of everything means routine processing skills are becoming redundant while at the same time many semi-skilled jobs are disappearing too.

Category by category, tasks that can now be done by machines are eliminating jobs.

If jobs are ever to come back people need time to learn new skills to replace ones which are now obsolete; it’s important to speed up re-training and human interaction with computers, he argued.

And Erik is optimistic. This digital age won’t be like earlier industrial revolutions, he thinks. It won’t die out like the age of steam, leaving old skills far behind, but will expand and develop exponentially so that new jobs will be created by those who have the energy and ingenuity to race with machines. The question is how policymakers can respond to this in our own education system.

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