Last week I posted a discussion of Prof. Hrdy’s intriguing new article on Technological Un/employment. Prof. Hrdy has now provided a short response that basically explains how I took a portion of her article (automation killing jobs) while ignoring other aspects of the 79-page article (e.g., many positive benefits of innovation, including job creation). – DC
by Prof. Camilla Hrdy
I am so honored that you found my article worth a post on Patently-O. In the nature of academic discussion and in good fun, I would like to briefly respond. (And please do feel free to post this).
First, I really appreciate the provocative title, “Prof. Hrdy: When Inventions Kill Jobs“, but want to add a bit more color. My thesis, as reflected by the title of my paper, Technological Un/employment, is that innovation, and thus intellectual property, both create and eliminate jobs. Historically, we have had more of the former than the latter.
Second, I think some readers may have come away with the idea that I am a bit of a Luddite, when I am the opposite. Innovation is good. No: innovation is great! It is the secret to economic prosperity and where the good jobs will come from in the future. I also believe IP is, on aggregate, good for innovation. As you astutely noted, my belief in the need for some form of regulation is motivated, at present, largely by distributional concerns, not by a fear of innovation itself. Even if technology won’t be doing all work by the year 2048, the number of humans needed to build, maintain, and operate that technology is dwindling, and access to jobs is increasingly restricted to highly educated people with unique opportunities — which most people do not enjoy. (Please see Part II of the Article). Those opportunities are also unequally distributed geographically, an issue I have raised in much of my work, particularly in my papers Cluster Competition and Patent Nationally, Innovate Locally. If current trends continue, the job market will more and more resemble a pyramid consisting of a select few at the top with high quality jobs — and a lot of IP — and the rest of humanity unemployed or consigned to “gap filling” for the machines. I also think that when inventions make others’ skills completely obsolete, this resembles a negative externality not unlike pollution. (Please see Part IV). There is at least a case to be made that those who profit should have to internalize some of the harms their inventions impose on others.
Third, while I do support some form of regulation to help avoid these outcomes, I do not support denying patents on labor displacing inventions. While it (might have) made sense in Queen Elizabeth’s time, I reject a “labor displacing patent bar” in favor of more effective tools. Likewise, I oppose fully banning labor displacing inventions like self-driving cars. Instead, I suggest a small — key word small — tax on profits from certain innovations that are found, upon adoption, to displace a significant number of workers.
This “labor displacing IP tax” would have a two-fold effect. First, it would permit giving back to workers at least some of what they lose, either in the form of skills training or — hopefully we won’t come to this — a universal basic income in the scenario where skills training doesn’t help because machines are capable of performing most tasks in the economy. Second, a small tax on underlying IP would at most marginally slow down the pace at which companies take advantage of improvements in machine learning and develop ever-more sophisticated forms of automation. The leading alternative proposal is a “robot tax” levied on businesses that adopt labor displacing inventions. To me, it makes far less sense to tax the mom-and-pop restaurant that adopts software to keep costs low than it does to tax whichever mega company owns the intellectual property covering the software.
The reason I turn to regulation is not to halt innovation. It is so that we can innovate with abandon. Also, I have a video to respond to your creative use of the Mr. Rogers’ segment, courtesy of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5d9BrLN5K4
In any event, thanks again for your thoughtful post. It is great to have this opportunity to engage in discussion on Patently-O.
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