Autor, D. et al (2021) The Work of the Future. Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines. MIT Press: Cambridge Massachusetts.
In 2018, the president of MIT commissioned the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. This task force was to explore the relationships between emerging technologies and work. This book is a summary output of some of the initial work of this task force. It is set within an American context, and hence the data used, and examples given are all from the USA. However, whilst this is the case, the arguments which are developed through the book will have wider currency, especially in the UK where this reviewer is based.
The book begins by looking at the changing labour market within the USA, and sets this in relation to the processes of task automation and the creation of new work as a result of the development of new technologies. The authors demonstrate that there has been shifts in the types of jobs, and that many new jobs have been created as a result of technological change. Within this discussion, it is made clear that there have been downsides to the development of technology in the labour market. There is clear evidence that whilst graduates have faired well from shifts, continuing to see increases in real wages, many other workers have seen a stagnation, or even a fall in their real wages. This has led to what the authors call ‘the great divergence’. As a result there has been a rise in inequality, as they state,
‘Within this great divergence lurk multiple dimensions of growing inequality – by education, race, ethnicity, gender and even geography.’ (19)
Linked to this growing inequality is a divergence in job quality and the loss of good conditions for many low paid and low skilled workers. This part of the book finishes by demonstrating that the rise of inequality and its linked issues of poor job quality have a detrimental impact on the US economy; unsurprisingly the conclusion appears to be that if you want a better functioning economy, you need to close the inequality gap by developing a better environment for work.
The authors next turn to the technological side of the equation. Here, they recount issues around the development of artificial intelligence, and its potential for changing the world of work. There are examples of how work might change, but overall the message appears to be that these shifts will lead to a change in jobs rather than the loss of jobs and resultant mass unemployment. One example shows the rising employment numbers and wages of nurses and health information technicians, whilst seeing a fall in the number and pay of medical transcriptionists over time. Another example explored is that of driverless vehicles. This shows that as the technology matures it may well be that many jobs are lost, but as the old jobs decline, new sectors will grow up around servicing and maintaining the new automated vehicles.
Whilst there is a lot of focus on the adoption of new technologies and how they will radically change the way people work, the authors do emphasise the uneven adoption and use of such technologies. They include a discussion of small and medium enterprises where the adoption of automation has been far less obvious than in large companies. This is often due to the cost of swapping over to these new processes; where production runs are small or where profits don’t allow for large capital expenditure, companies choose to retain existing ways of working. This then shows another potential for inequality through lessened competitiveness.
Having outlined the complexity of the current shifts in the workplace as a result of emerging technologies, the authors then open the second part of the book which focuses on what responses are needed to ensure that inequality is lessened and not amplified. They begin by exploring the role of education and training. It is refreshing to see a focus on workplace training rather than seeing the formal education system as the primary way of correcting education need. A number of options are considered, including in-sector training programmes, private sector investment in training as well as better vocational training in schools. These are all focused on developing, and continuing to develop, the expert skills-based and knowledge of workers. It shows the idea of ongoing development as opposed to a single programme at the start of a career.
Next job quality is considered, as the authors highlight,
‘the US has not translated rising productivity into commensurate improvements in job opportunities and earnings for the majority of workers during the last four decades.’ (101)
Several policies are suggested here including better unemployment insurance (a form of social security) which has fallen to low levels with less protection since the 1980s. This is suggested in conjunction with meaningful minimum wages and the development of workers as stakeholders, including renewed labour movement activity to work in partnership with employers. It seems here that there are no really innovative suggestions, merely the reinstalling of rights and securities enjoyed previously before the free-market ideology of the 1980s kicked in. However, the authors believe these interventions could play a crucial role in increasing job quality across the labour market.
To finish their exploration, the authors look at the need for institutions for innovation. They make it clear that many of the large-scale innovations the USA have been global leaders in came from government backed investment, for example in space engineering and the internet. This shows that the free market alone cannot create innovations by itself, and needs the State to act as partners if innovations are to develop the economy further.
The result of the discussions engaged with throughout the book lead to a set of policy directions, which the authors believe will create a better workplace which can integrate technologies positively. Unsurprisingly these policy directions focus on investing and innovating in skills and training, better job quality, and a greater role in bringing about innovation.
This is a really interesting book which provides both data and examples as evidence for the arguments being made. It will be accessible to the general reader. I particularly like the fact the authors don’t present emerging technologies as either the saviour or the demon of the future labour market, but as a set of tools which need to be considered in relation to the outcomes we want for ourselves as the workers and populations which will interact with them. It also demonstrates that whilst the New Labour government of the 2000s who pushed a skills agenda in schools with videos such as ‘Shift Happens’ which oversimplified the potential changes in future job markets, those who laughed and said that such shifts were a mirage and that education should go back to being ‘stuff to memorise’ were equally naïve.
Winters, A.M. (2017) Natural Processes. Understanding Metaphysics Without Substance. Palgrave Macmillan: Cham, Switzerland.
As this book highlights, the dominant European ontological tradition is one based on substances. Here, a discussion is developed which considers this substance-based ontology and its possible problems, and then presents a case for the alternative, a process-based metaphysics.
The book begins by focusing on the debate over the primacy of substance over process, beginning with the pre-Socratic philosophers. The argument presented is that a substance ontology has become dominant with little consideration of the potential of the process alternative.
The main body of the book goes on to outline both Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelian accounts of substance. Neo-Aristotelian metaphysics is discussed using Lowe’s work which focuses on a four category ontology (objects, kinds, properties and modes) which are discussed and the shortcomings of the account identified. This leads to a more general discussion about the problems with a substance metaphysics, focusing particularly on how change is possible. This section of the book uses common sense orientated arguments, which are then followed by a consideration of naturalistic (i.e. scientific) problems. Here, Winters uses quantum field theory and biology to explore further the idea of substance metaphysics and again finds that problems present themselves in relation to developing a substance metaphysics.
Having argued that even though Neo-Aristotelian theories have problems, they should not be characterised as false, but should also explore alternative metaphysical theories, Winters then goes on to outline the fundamental terms of a process metaphysics. He uses quantum field theory as a vehicle to suggest that a process approach works as well as alternative substance theories and that it also fits well for biological explanations. However, Winters is careful not to suggest that a process metaphysics is not without its own problems and thus takes a balanced view of the potential for a process alternative to substance metaphysics.
This is a very interesting and well written book, but is probably not for the general reader, assuming a level of philosophical engagement and understanding of metaphysics. However, as a source to support arguments around the legitimacy of process metaphysics it is a very useful contribution.
Climate change has increasingly become accepted as the most important process impacting on the future of the human species. Whilst the majority of people now accept that climate change is a reality, the level of understanding related to how climate change happens and the impacts it has, are less well understood by the wider population. To understand the underlying physics of climate change processes is crucial if individuals are not only to have confidence in the science, but more importantly, to challenge spurious arguments made by those who continue to deny the climatic shifts we are experiencing.
Krauss’ book is a very clear and well written introduction to the physics which underpins the science of climate change and does this with both a clear and critical overview of the science but does this with a very engaging style. Throughout the book, links are made between the scientific principles and concrete examples which help to illustrate and bring to life the ideas which are discussed.
After a short discussion of the tidal environment of the Mekong River and delta, which is returned to later, the early part of the book focuses on the history of carbon dioxide measurement and the famous evidence of concentration increases as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in the Hawaiian Islands. This is augmented by consideration of evidence coming from ice core measurements to show that there is plentiful data showing that the levels of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere are unprecedented.
This leads to a reflection on the ways in which carbon dioxide cycles through the global system, and the impact humans are having on how this works. The evidence shows that we are having a huge impact! What is useful about the discussion of cycles is not only the volumes of carbon dioxide involved, but also how the various stores and transfers fit together, and how humans have changed these, particularly in the last 250 years or so.
Then comes discussions of atmospheric energy transfers and chemistry. Both of these are well illustrated and explained for those who are not confident in exploring aspects of the physical sciences. There is enough general explanation here that even if an individual does not understand the maths, they can understand the argument being made.
Having established the basic physics and chemistry involved in climate change, consideration is then given of the record of shifts in temperature and shifts in the concentrations of various greenhouse gases. The contribution of these different gases is then reflected upon and how changing concentrations in the past have compared to proxy temperature change evidence. As a result, a secure link is made between changes in the concentrations of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere with changes in global temperature.
The book then moves into the final main section, focusing on the impact that climate change is having on the systems of the planet, including the wasting of ice masses, ocean currents, etc and the effects these changes will have, particularly on sea-level rise and its associated impacts.
This is a fantastic book and should give the general reader a great insight as to how scientists can be so sure of the processes leading to climate change. What is also a real positive is the way in which Krauss does not attempt to scare and lecture. In places he makes it clear that the evidence concerning future impacts is not always clear and we cannot be certain of what will happen, in detail. However, at the same time we can be sure that in general if we do not change our relationship with the planet, the future will not see positive changes. This honesty about the level of evidence and security of predictions makes the overall argument much stronger and demonstrates that Krauss is using expert understanding and the available evidence to give an honest picture of what we now about the processes of climate change at this time.
This is an inexpensive book, and can be engaged with by the general reader, as well as being a great revision text for those in academia who might be working on the wider aspects of climate change. This book deserves to be widely read.
Some reflections on things I'm reading