Tyler Cowen linked to two recent stories:
National Nurses United has an ad warning about the dangers of replacing nurses with data.
And here is a story of the battle between farmers and "big data".
The nurse ad is pretty funny, but probably not in the way the union intended. It reminds me of these wonderful old ads from musician's unions in the 1930's campaigning against recorded music (ht: KPC).
These conflicts are an example of how difficult progress can be when it causes obsolescence of something we consider dear or sacred. Is there a more quintessential image of human character than a farmer's intimate relationship with the sight, smell, and feel of his dirt? Monsanto has technology that makes this knowledge increasingly obsolete. Likewise, AI diagnosticians are becoming more dependable than doctors and nurses.
Our reaction to this is much different than our reaction to the obsolescence of technology. Or, even think of cars replacing horses. Stable keepers' unions probably had ads against those infernal new machines, but with distance, we recognize these advances as boons to human opportunity. (Auto repair diagnosis has also become highly automated. I think it is an interesting exercise to compare this to medical automation. There was relatively little despair over this development in auto repair. How does this relate to our feelings toward this service, and toward auto mechanics versus doctors and nurses?)
It seems compassionate and pro-human - pro-community - to support the skilled farmers and professionals in these matters. The sentiments being prodded in the nurse and musician ads are universally sensitive. And, come on, are you really going to side with Monsanto over farmers? Is it outrageous and mean spirited of me to feel disappointment that our educational institutions are shielding teachers from these same pressures?
But, the irony is that these easy sentimental biases are wholly anti-progress. If we apply them in these contexts, we are allowing our subconscious knack for social signaling to overbear progress in the very society we are signaling to. We have a bias for supporting obsolete human capital because it shows our loyalty and support for people doing good in our communities. It shows our sophistication - that we can recognize talent and skill.
But, what are the consequences? In the end, the most powerful force for improvement of the most poor, the most egalitarian tool in the history of humanity, is automation. Canned music means that paupers can now enjoy the same entertainment previously only available to the elite. AI medical tools will mean that the triage office in rural Appalachia or the Kenyan savannah will offer the same quality of diagnosis as the Mayo Clinic. Farming automation means that basic foodstuffs are abundant for many poor people across the globe. Imagine the possibilities for marginalized kids if teaching were largely automated. Not only would the poorest kids have access to the same sources of knowledge as middle class kids, but resources would be freed to provide them with even more services.
A central dilemma of political advocacy: Being truly pro-progress sometimes necessarily means taking postures that make you look like an ass. ("Don't you see? We're all better off because the skills you built over a lifetime in a widely honored craft are no longer needed! Huzzah!") Of course, also being human means that if you commit to this discipline, sometimes you will bravely be defending progress at your own social cost, and sometimes, you will just be being an ass. Since these matters can never be universally determined with certainty, not looking like an ass is probably the smart choice most of the time. Thus, I would humbly suggest that, if your economics or politics don't frequently put you in the unavoidable position of supporting positions only an ass would support, you might just be a cog in a giant collective action problem. But, I suppose I could just be saying that because I'm an ass.