Visit additional Tabor Communication Publications
July 16, 2010
As a journalist focused on supercomputing, I'm used to singing the praises of high-tech and the wondrous applications it delivers. The recent advances in fields like genomics, climate simulation, astrophysics and computer-aided manufacturing would be impossible without the latest computer wizardry. But one of the darker sides to IT is its negative impact on employment.
That might seem counter-intuitive. New applications should encourage new industries and demand for workers. But it hasn't worked out that way. At least not yet. In his 2008 book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, author Nicholas Carr describes how the Information Technology Revolution is different from the Industrial Revolution that proceeded it:
The distinguished Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that computerization is the main cause behind the 2-decades long stagnation of middle class wages. 'There are assembly lines today, but they are without workers. They are managed by computers in a glass cage above, with highly skilled engineers in charge.' Normally the introduction of labor-saving technology would erode wages only briefly before the resulting boost in productivity pushed them back up again. Unlike earlier technologies that caused 'discrete changes' such as the steam engine, the ongoing advances in computer technology offer workers no respite. The displacement of workers is continuous now and the pressure on wages becomes relentless.
It's common sense that automation reduces labor demand. And information technology just happens to be the perfect tool for doing this. Software is excellent at doing the same thing over and over again. (That's why God invented the for-loop.) But it's also good at making decisions based upon past events. (That's why God invented the if-statement.) So it's not just industrial robots pounding rivets into sheet metal in an automobile factory, and making auto workers obsolete. It's also HPC-style clusters doing business intelligence that was once under the purview of white-collar office workers. History suggests that anything that can be automated eventually will be.
Even techies themselves are at risk. Despite the almost non-stop reports that we are going to need a gazillion new computer scientists to feed the IT workforce over the next several years, computer engineer salaries are stagnant. A recent AP article reports that salaries have even dropped slightly for computer science and engineer majors in the US.
The situation for CS laborers looks even worse in the UK. According to a BBC report, 17 percent of computer science majors who graduated last year are unemployed. Engineers fared only slightly better at 13 percent. The lowest unemployment rates among UK grads were in medicine (0 percent), education (5 percent), and law (6 percent) -- not exactly your high-tech fields.
Of course, we're in the midst of a global recession, and outsourcing has moved a lot of IT jobs to China, India, and other low-cost labor markets. So techies are under assault on a couple of fronts right now. Despite that, the IT sector is outperforming the overall economy. Intel, for example, just reported its best quarter in 42 years, with record sales ($10.77 billion) and profits ($2.89 billion). Rival AMD just reported record revenue ($1.65 billion) as well.
It's worth noting that neither company needed to ramp up its workforce to accomplish this. In fact, the hub of the US IT industry, Silicon Valley, is not exactly a job factory these days. Unemployment in the Valley is hovering at over 11 percent these days, almost two points above the national average. Yet, many of its companies are forecasting healthy growth over the next 12 months, expecting pent-up consumer and corporate demand to drive revenue.
A tech recovery, though, is unlikely to reignite employment, at least in the US. Most hardware manufacturing, and quite a bit of software development, has now moved overseas. Former Intel CEO and chairman Andy Grove decries the situation, writing in Bloomberg that the US needs to get back in the manufacturing game if it wants to continue to be a center for innovation. Grove puts it this way:
[O]ur pursuit of our individual businesses, which often involves transferring manufacturing and a great deal of engineering out of the country, has hindered our ability to bring innovations to scale at home. Without scaling, we don’t just lose jobs -- we lose our hold on new technologies. Losing the ability to scale will ultimately damage our capacity to innovate.
He recommends government investment to develop domestic manufacturing and implement import levies to discourage offshoring production and labor. In essence, craft a job-centric economic policy that revolves around factories that are going to build the mass-produced products of the 21st century -- things like consumer electronics, advanced batteries, and solar panels.
This might seem strange coming from a guy who helped build one of the biggest computer tech companies in the world, but it is Intel's chip manufacturing prowess that drives its huge employment base. The idea that everyone can move up the IT food chain is a losing strategy for jobs. The reality is there are only so many senior computer scientists, VPs, and marketing directors required in the world. Or as Grove says: "...what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work -- and masses of unemployed?"
Of course, if Carr's calculation is correct, even factory-based jobs will be swept away by IT. Eventually we'll have to come up with an economy based on labor that can't be automated away by machines, software, or communication networks. Or maybe we'll be forced to come up with an economy based on something other than labor. Hmmm... maybe information technology will save us after all.
Posted by Michael Feldman - July 15, 2010 @ 9:55 PM, Pacific Daylight Time
Michael Feldman is the editor of HPCwire.
No Recent Blog Comments
In quieter times, sounding the bell of funding big science with big systems tends to resonate further than when ears are already burning with sour economic and national security news. For exascale's future, however, the time could be ripe to instill some sense of urgency....
In a recent solicitation, the NSF laid out needs for furthering its scientific and engineering infrastructure with new tools to go beyond top performance, Having already delivered systems like Stampede and Blue Waters, they're turning an eye to solving data-intensive challenges. We spoke with the agency's Irene Qualters and Barry Schneider about..
Large-scale, worldwide scientific initiatives rely on some cloud-based system to both coordinate efforts and manage computational efforts at peak times that cannot be contained within the combined in-house HPC resources. Last week at Google I/O, Brookhaven National Lab’s Sergey Panitkin discussed the role of the Google Compute Engine in providing computational support to ATLAS, a detector of high-energy particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
May 23, 2013 |
The study of climate change is one of those scientific problems where it is almost essential to model the entire Earth to attain accurate results and make worthwhile predictions. In an attempt to make climate science more accessible to smaller research facilities, NASA introduced what they call ‘Climate in a Box,’ a system they note acts as a desktop supercomputer.
May 22, 2013 |
At some point in the not-too-distant future, building powerful, miniature computing systems will be considered a hobby for high schoolers, just as robotics or even Lego-building are today. That could be made possible through recent advancements made with the Raspberry Pi computers.
May 16, 2013 |
When it comes to cloud, long distances mean unacceptably high latencies. Researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany examined those latency issues of doing CFD modeling in the cloud by utilizing a common CFD and its utilization in HPC instance types including both CPU and GPU cores of Amazon EC2.
May 15, 2013 |
Supercomputers at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) have worked on important computational problems such as collapse of the atomic state, the optimization of chemical catalysts, and now modeling popping bubbles.
05/10/2013 | Cleversafe, Cray, DDN, NetApp, & Panasas | From Wall Street to Hollywood, drug discovery to homeland security, companies and organizations of all sizes and stripes are coming face to face with the challenges – and opportunities – afforded by Big Data. Before anyone can utilize these extraordinary data repositories, however, they must first harness and manage their data stores, and do so utilizing technologies that underscore affordability, security, and scalability.
04/15/2013 | Bull | “50% of HPC users say their largest jobs scale to 120 cores or less.” How about yours? Are your codes ready to take advantage of today’s and tomorrow’s ultra-parallel HPC systems? Download this White Paper by Analysts Intersect360 Research to see what Bull and Intel’s Center for Excellence in Parallel Programming can do for your codes.
In this demonstration of SGI DMF ZeroWatt disk solution, Dr. Eng Lim Goh, SGI CTO, discusses a function of SGI DMF software to reduce costs and power consumption in an exascale (Big Data) storage datacenter.
The Cray CS300-AC cluster supercomputer offers energy efficient, air-cooled design based on modular, industry-standard platforms featuring the latest processor and network technologies and a wide range of datacenter cooling requirements.