Roger Bootle is not afraid to think and say unconventional things. He is that rare phenomenon: a professional economist who thinks that Brexit is a Good Idea. Indeed, he belongs to a group called Economists for Brexit, now renamed as Economists for Free Trade, which argues for a no-deal Brexit.
Whatever you think of that, the economics consultancy that Bootle founded, Capital Economics, has been very successful financially, and in 2012 it was awarded the £250,000 Wolfson Economics Prize, the second most valuable economics prize in the world after the Nobel, for a proposal that EU member states who wanted to exit should default on a large part of their debts. A book on technological unemployment from such a high-profile economist is to be warmly welcomed. What’s more, it is a well-researched, enjoyable, and thoughtful book.
The thoughtfulness does have its limits. The book reads as though Bootle was determined to dismiss the possibility of technological unemployment from the outset, and he makes little effort to hide his disdain for those who take the idea seriously. People like Max Tegmark and me, who are guilty of this crime, are labelled “AI visionaries”, and it is clear that this is not a compliment. We “geeks” are “bubbling enthusiasts” but also pessimists, “emanating gloom”. Others who are responsible for “fetid speculation about the implications of AI” are Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Stuart Russell, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. Quite the rogues’ gallery.
Overall, Bootle’s writing style is clear and relaxed, and the book is mostly calm and measured. Occasionally he does give free rein to his inner curmudgeon: “As to the Internet of Things, rarely can something have been so overhyped. … In the future, doorknobs and curtains will also be able to speak to us when they need some attention, rather like those disembodied voices or noises in cars that tell us when we haven’t fastened our seatbelts. Heaven forfend!”
Less than a quarter of the way through the book, Bootle delivers what he thinks is the killer blow to the idea that technological unemployment is possible. “Unless and until robots can produce and reproduce themselves costlessly … human beings will always have some comparative advantage.” He admits that this might not help, as the income they could earn “might be appallingly low such that it hardly seemed worth working and the state has to intervene in a major way.” But he thinks humans have something better than comparative advantage: “In fact, such an outcome lies a long way off and, I suspect, will never transpire. For there are many areas where humans possess an absolute advantage over robots and AI, including manual dexterity, emotional intelligence, creativity, flexibility, and most importantly, humanity. These qualities ensure that in the AI economy there will be a plethora of jobs for humans.” And apparently that’s it.
I disagree. AlphaGo’s famous move 37 in its second game against Lee Sedol in 2016 is one of many proofs that machines can be creative, even if their version of creativity does not involve a shred of consciousness. And anyone who has been watching the progress of robots developed by Boston Dynamics and others in the last few years will be under no illusion that humans will remain supreme forever in manual dexterity and flexibility.
The truth is that no-one knows for sure whether technological unemployment will happen, or when. None of us has a crystal ball. But if you think seriously about the impact of the exponential growth in the power of computers, and if you think ahead just a few decades, you realise that it is dangerously complacent to dismiss the possibility of technological unemployment out of hand.
Bootle does consider the phenomenon of exponential growth – he borrows my illustration of a football stadium filling up with water – but he dismisses it because it always collapses into an S curve, and he argues that because observations of exponential growth are sometimes described as a law, they lead to assertions that “rest on flimsy, if not nonexistent foundations.” This is a blatant Aunt Sally: everyone knows that exponential growth always collapses into an S curve eventually – the question is how long before that happens. (You are composed of around 27 trillion cells, which were created by fission, or division – an exponential process. It required 46 steps of fission to create all of your cells. Moore’s Law, by comparison, has had 36 steps in the 54 years of its existence.) And I’m not aware of anybody writing about Moore’s Law who doesn’t realise that it is an observation, not a physical law.
Partly the problem seems to lie in a failure of Bootle’s imagination – or perhaps his unwillingness to exercise it. He studied PPE at Oxford, and one of his favourite questions from back then is “Was the Black Death a good thing?” He says he “cannot imagine any form of AI being capable of assessing adequately the range of possible answers to this question.” I bet he could if he really tried.
Quite a few of Bootle’s assertions are out-of-date, or simply mistaken. He pours scorn on the idea of the paperless office, but the use of paper in offices peaked in 2007. He reports that chess computers are enhanced by collaborating with humans, but this has not been true for several years now. He thinks Kevin Kelly is a singularitarian, when he is actually a prominent opponent of the idea. A quick look at Wikipedia would have saved him from making the erroneous claim that Stanislav Petrov (the man who saved the world by bravely declaring a report about incoming American nuclear weapons to be a false alarm) was sacked. More seriously, his account of the progress with self-driving cars is highly contentious, and probably considerably off the mark. He regards autonomous cars as a bubble which is about to burst and destroy much of the automotive industry which has been foolish enough to invest so heavily in it.
From my point of view, it is a great shame that Bootle seems to have begun his enquiry so prejudiced against the idea that technological unemployment is a realistic possibility some decades ahead. In general, he is a congenial guide to the issues, and it would have been fascinating to have had his economic expertise applied to the idea, for instance, that the economy of abundance is a better solution to the problem than universal basic income, and that fully automated luxury capitalism is a better aspiration than fully automated luxury communism. As it stands, most of his book is only of academic interest if you do take the idea of technological unemployment seriously.
This article first appeared in Forbes magazine in October 2019.