CMU Professor Mark Kamlet on automation’s future impact

Self-driving cars and many other kinds of artificial intelligence technology making their way into every professional field, many researchers and the public wonder about the impact these technological advancements will have on human jobs if machines can — or potentially could perform — so many of the skilled tasks that humans currently perform. Mark Kamlet, a Provost Emeritus and University Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon, is currently pursuing research on the future of automation and its impact on the economy and people’s lives, along with Seth Goldstein, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the university. In an interview with The Tartan, Kamlet discusses highlights of his research, its implications, his personal reasons for being involved, and what he wants to offer students in his seminar class this semester.

Though he has a doctorate in economics, Kamlet chooses to study automation in part because while economics can adequately explain many phenomena, “economics has never been very good in explaining technological change.” He saw a hole in the field of economics when it came to assessing and explaining the impact of technology on society. Seeing the technological focus of Carnegie Mellon, he saw the intersection of economics and technology as an area of research that suited his interests and those of the university.

Being a researcher on automation and its social impacts, Kamlet believes that much of the public discourse about the future of technology and what that would mean for jobs is too black-and-white. The public tends to talk about the percentage of jobs that will be replaced by technology, but he has a more nuanced view: just because a job isn’t replaced by technology doesn’t mean that it won’t be impacted, either for better or for worse.

“Technological change, going way back, has always been disruptive,” Kamlet asserts. He cites the industrial revolution, when steam engines appeared and took away certain jobs while creating new, different ones. He acknowledges that some people are affected more than others, and that the unemployed cannot always be retrained for the new jobs that paid similarly to their old jobs. But eventually, after some years, society reaches a balance with the presence of the new technology, including by creating jobs in categories no one speculating before the changes happened would have thought of.

“Twenty years ago, search engine optimization experts wasn’t a job category; now it is,” Kamlet states, as just one example of a recently emerged job category.

Kamlet emphasizes that the impact of technology is not clear cut: it is not either lose the job or keep the job. Rather, most jobs will be impacted because the circumstances on the job change. He gave the example of cashiers. In the years before computers, cashiers had to memorize all the prices of the items and be skilled at mental arithmetic — a far cry from the lower-skilled cashier jobs we see today. Because of the reduction in skill involved, the salaries of cashiers went down — the jobs still exist, but were significantly affected by the advancement of technology.

To those worried about the possible technological takeover of their paychecks, Kamlet says that there should be nothing to worry about if they are able to acquire new skills needed later. He does acknowledge, however, that retraining cannot help everyone displaced get a new job and that not everyone is able to acquire a skill set suitable to the new economic scene. Instead, he believes that this is where government policies should step in, citing the example of coal miners who have been without jobs.

“It’s not [the coal miners’] fault that coal can now be done with. . .more equipment, that natural gas has come into being, that solar and wind [are making advancements], and that we now know that coal leads to climate problems,” Kamlet explains. He is adamant that government policies need to recognize this, rather then blame their challenges on a lack of diligence on the displaced workers’ part.

Kamlet disagrees with President Trump on the solution to the coal miners’ plight — he makes it clear that it is not to ignore climate change and revive the old coal industry, as the President has stated. Rather, it is to have public policies that, as he put it, “as we create great wealth as a country...make sure that everybody gets at least an adequate piece of the pie.”

Kamlet details several policies that could be in place to ease the transition for workers displaced or otherwise affected by technology. These include a robust tax system that raises the standard of living for everyone, the earned income tax credit, an adequate minimum wage, universal basic income, and wage insurance.

Kamlet wants the younger generation to understand that despite the emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), the future will require much more than just STEM skills — skills in social and emotional interactions will likely become more and more important in the future, as laid out in his New American Dream. This book proposes ideas such as paying people for “tasks of love” — taking care of those in need, according to a university press release.

This semester, Kamlet is co-teaching a seminar class on inequality, which he hopes will give students a chance to discuss important issues, expose them to the humanities departments, allow them to have small-group discussions, and help them get to know Carnegie Mellon faculty.