Labor’s Digital Displacement

MILAN – Digital technologies are once again transforming global value chains and, with them, the structure of the global economy. What do businesses, citizens, and policymakers need to know as they scramble to keep up?


Digitally enabled supply chains initially increased efficiency and dramatically shortened lead times. Capital was mobile; labor less so. Economic activity (production, research, design, etc.) moved to any accessible country or region that had relatively inexpensive labor and human capital. With only a slight lag, complexity became manageable, and global supply chains’ linear model (something produced in country A is consumed in country B) gave way to a more complex model with more fragmented but more efficient supply networks.

Meanwhile, a dramatic shift occurred on the demand side, as emerging economies grew and became middle-income countries. Developing country producers, who in an earlier era accounted for a relatively small fraction of global demand, became major consumers.

Global supply networks shifted again, accommodating fragmentation and dispersion on both the supply and demand sides of their structure, a process sometimes called technologically enabled atomization: the division of supply networks into finer and finer parts, breaking the bonds of proximity and the resulting transaction-cost constraints that previously prevailed.

For example, many services related to intermediate and final demand require knowledge, expertise, information, and communication for their delivery. What they do not require is geographical nearness or the physical movement of goods. They represent a large share of the global economy, and they are gravitating rapidly toward the tradable sector, with increasingly powerful digital and information technology chasing imperfectly mobile human resources and new rapidly growing markets.

In the course of this transformation, millions of people joined the global economy, with wide-ranging consequences – many of which remain challenging – for poverty, prices, wages, and income distributions.

Now comes a second, potentially even more powerful, wave of digital technology that is replacing labor in increasingly complex tasks. This process of labor substitution and disintermediation has been underway for some time in service sectors – think of ATMs, online banking, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, mobile payment systems, and much more. This revolution is spreading to the production of goods, where robots and 3D printing are displacing labor.

It is important to understand the economics of these technologies. The vast majority of the cost comes at the start, in the design of hardware (like sensors) and, more important, in creating the software that produces the capability to carry out various tasks. Once this is achieved, the marginal cost of the hardware is relatively low (and declines as scale rises), and the marginal cost of replicating the software is essentially zero. With a huge potential global market to amortize the upfront fixed costs of design and testing, the incentives to invest are compelling.

In other words, unlike the preceding wave of digital technology, which motivated firms to gain access to and deploy underutilized pools of valuable labor around the world, the driving force in this round is cost reduction via the replacement of labor.

This transformation has important side effects. For physical goods, there are costs associated with logistics and lead times, owing to inventories and poor forecasts of the market. With digital capital-intensive technology, however, production will inevitably move toward the final market, wherever it is. This re-localization constitutes a major shift in the structure of global supply networks.

An extreme form of this may be coming in the form of 3D printing, a technology that makes it possible to produce an astonishingly wide and growing range of products by printing them one layer at a time. Examples include buildings, athletic shoes, designer lamps, aircraft wings, and much more.

As the costs of this technology decline, it is easy to imagine that production will become extremely local and customized. Moreover, production may occur in response to actual demand, not anticipated or forecast demand. In some sense, this represents the ultimate compression of supply chains, as firms produce to final demand with minimal delay.

Meanwhile, the impact of robotics (another technology with digital foundations), is not confined to production. Though self-driving cars and drones are the most attention-getting examples, the impact on logistics is no less transformative. Computers and robotic cranes that schedule and move containers around and load ships now control the Port of Singapore, one of the most efficient in the world.

Developing countries in the early stages of growth need to understand these trends. Labor, no matter how inexpensive, will become a less important asset for growth and employment expansion, with labor-intensive, process-oriented manufacturing becoming a less effective way for early-stage developing countries to enter the global economy.

Re-localization will be seen everywhere, including lower-income countries. Production will not vanish; it will just be less labor intensive. All countries will eventually need to rebuild their growth models around digital technologies and the human capital that supports their deployment and expansion. 

The retail sector, too, is being transformed. Online retail and supporting logistics is expanding in a wide range of advanced and developing economies. In China, where the expansion is occurring extremely quickly, estimates suggest that only part of the expansion is at the expense of traditional retail.

In fact, online retail appears to be accelerating the expansion of the overall consumer market. Knowledgeable participants expect the new retail model to be an integrated form of online and physical retail, each modified by the presence of the other. Think again of the 3D printing model, a potential form of demand-driven mass-customization, and its combination with online mobile payments systems and social media. The integration of sourcing with logistics and retail will become the third leg of the stool.

The world we are entering is one in which the most powerful global flows will be ideas and digital capital, not goods, services, and traditional capital. Adapting to this will require shifts in mindsets, policies, investments (especially in human capital), and quite possibly models of employment and distribution. No one knows fully how all of this will play out. But attempting to understand where the technological forces and trends are leading us is a good place to start. 

Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Next Convergence – The Future of Economic Growth in a Multispeed World.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

Image credit: Shutterstock

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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