High Skill Jobs Aren't Safe from Technology, with Andrew McAfee

Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Management discusses the ways in which automation threatens the jobs of tax preparers and lawyers.

Andy McAfee: The median American worker doesn’t do manual labor anymore. The average American worker is not a ditch digger. But they’re also not doing incredibly high-end particle physics or data science. They are what you’d call the somewhat routine knowledge worker. That is right in the sweet spot of where technology is making its greatest inroads. And a good example of that is a tax preparer. That’s someone who has mastered a very complicated American tax code, but they do the same thing over and over. They apply that code to an individual person. That’s recently become fairly easy to automate and automate very well. So now a lot of us find a $40 program like TurboTax completely adequate for our needs. That’s great news for two out of three constituencies.

That’s great news for us as consumers. We get very good tax advice at a lower price point. It’s really good news for the team at Intuit. They created a lot of value. They should be able to capture some of that value. The constituency that’s most negatively affected is the body of tax preparers out there. These are folk who are actually above-average educated. They’ve been to college. They’ve been to an advanced degree. They’ve got a CPA. They’ve done the right thing. They’ve invested their human capital in an area they thought would lead to a long and productive career. And all of a sudden here comes a $40 piece of software that’s putting a lot of downward pressure on their wages.

 

And the law has been another pretty high-prestige, well-paid, highly educated profession. There’s a lot of pressure in the legal industry these days. Law school applications — not per capita, but raw law school applications are at their lowest level since the 1970s. There are a number of reasons for that. One of them is the fact that if you’re in a discovery process right now and you want to figure out what’s in the other guy’s documents, you no longer need to employ an army of lawyers to sit around and read boxes full of documents. Those boxes are now electronic folders full of electronic documents. And we’ve got a category of software called eDiscovery where you basically just tell it what you’re looking for, hit a button and milliseconds later you get back every instance of that pattern.

 

If there’s a smoking gun in the documents, it’s very likely to find it. The head-to-head comparisons that we’re able to do between the results of eDiscovery and the results of that army of lawyers sitting around and reading documents indicate that the eDiscovery actually gives you higher-quality outcomes. So a lot of these trends are putting pressure not just on that classic median American worker, but even on fairly highly educated, well-paid ones like law.

 

It’s always been the case that technology is an engine of what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." The simultaneous destruction of old companies and industries and jobs and tasks and the creation of new ones. And that’s clearly going on right now. We see a lot of new creation of technologies, jobs, industries, and professions. So data scientist is a very new job description. This is not just a statistician with a new business card.

These are people who have really mastered a very diverse and important body of skills and they’re bringing them together to take advantage of the oceans of digital data that we have and really tremendous amounts of computational power. Not a job category that existed 10 years ago, but one that’s up there at the fairly high end of the skill distribution. It’s a pretty good example of this phenomenon of skill-biased technical change.



Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


 

 

Automation is a major threat to the median American worker who specializes in what is called "routine knowledge work." Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Management explains that this is the sweet spot where technology is making its greatest inroads. Jobs like tax preparation, which often requires a mastery of formulas and policy, are becoming easier and easier to automate.


At the same time, there are quite a few high-skill professions that are also feeling this sort of pressure. Computer programs can more accurately discover a smoking gun hidden within hundreds of pages of court documents.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

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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