Information Technology Is Not the Savior of the Unemployed

By Michael Feldman

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.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

The EU Human Brain Project Reboots but Supercomputing Still Needed

June 26, 2017

The often contentious, EU-funded Human Brain Project whose initial aim was fixed firmly on full-brain simulation is now in the midst of a reboot targeting a more modest goal – development of informatics tools and data/ Read more…

By John Russell

DOE Launches Chicago Quantum Exchange

June 26, 2017

While many of us were preoccupied with ISC 2017 last week, the launch of the Chicago Quantum Exchange went largely unnoticed. So what is such a thing? It is a Department of Energy sponsored collaboration between the Univ Read more…

By John Russell

UMass Dartmouth Reports on HPC Day 2017 Activities

June 26, 2017

UMass Dartmouth's Center for Scientific Computing & Visualization Research (CSCVR) organized and hosted the third annual "HPC Day 2017" on May 25th. This annual event showcases on-going scientific research in Massach Read more…

By Gaurav Khanna

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “pre-exascale” award), parsed out additional information ab Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Creating a Roadmap for HPC Innovation at ISC 2017

In an era where technological advancements are driving innovation to every sector, and powering major economic and scientific breakthroughs, high performance computing (HPC) is crucial to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow. Read more…

Tsinghua Crowned Eight-Time Student Cluster Champions at ISC

June 22, 2017

Always a hard-fought competition, the Student Cluster Competition awards were announced Wednesday, June 21, at the ISC High Performance Conference 2017. Amid whoops and hollers from the crowd, Thomas Sterling presented t Read more…

By Kim McMahon

GPUs, Power9, Figure Prominently in IBM’s Bet on Weather Forecasting

June 22, 2017

IBM jumped into the weather forecasting business roughly a year and a half ago by purchasing The Weather Company. This week at ISC 2017, Big Blue rolled out plans to push deeper into climate science and develop more gran Read more…

By John Russell

Intersect 360 at ISC: HPC Industry at $44B by 2021

June 22, 2017

The care, feeding and sustained growth of the HPC industry increasingly is in the hands of the commercial market sector – in particular, it’s the hyperscale companies and their embrace of AI and deep learning – tha Read more…

By Doug Black

At ISC – Goh on Go: Humans Can’t Scale, the Data-Centric Learning Machine Can

June 22, 2017

I've seen the future this week at ISC, it’s on display in prototype or Powerpoint form, and it’s going to dumbfound you. The future is an AI neural network designed to emulate and compete with the human brain. In thi Read more…

By Doug Black

DOE Launches Chicago Quantum Exchange

June 26, 2017

While many of us were preoccupied with ISC 2017 last week, the launch of the Chicago Quantum Exchange went largely unnoticed. So what is such a thing? It is a D Read more…

By John Russell

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tsinghua Crowned Eight-Time Student Cluster Champions at ISC

June 22, 2017

Always a hard-fought competition, the Student Cluster Competition awards were announced Wednesday, June 21, at the ISC High Performance Conference 2017. Amid wh Read more…

By Kim McMahon

GPUs, Power9, Figure Prominently in IBM’s Bet on Weather Forecasting

June 22, 2017

IBM jumped into the weather forecasting business roughly a year and a half ago by purchasing The Weather Company. This week at ISC 2017, Big Blue rolled out pla Read more…

By John Russell

Intersect 360 at ISC: HPC Industry at $44B by 2021

June 22, 2017

The care, feeding and sustained growth of the HPC industry increasingly is in the hands of the commercial market sector – in particular, it’s the hyperscale Read more…

By Doug Black

At ISC – Goh on Go: Humans Can’t Scale, the Data-Centric Learning Machine Can

June 22, 2017

I've seen the future this week at ISC, it’s on display in prototype or Powerpoint form, and it’s going to dumbfound you. The future is an AI neural network Read more…

By Doug Black

Cray Brings AI and HPC Together on Flagship Supers

June 20, 2017

Cray took one more step toward the convergence of big data and high performance computing (HPC) today when it announced that it’s adding a full suite of big d Read more…

By Alex Woodie

AMD Charges Back into the Datacenter and HPC Workflows with EPYC Processor

June 20, 2017

AMD is charging back into the enterprise datacenter and select HPC workflows with its new EPYC 7000 processor line, code-named Naples, announced today at a “g Read more…

By John Russell

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Just how close real-wo Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the cam Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Pulls Back the Covers on Its First Machine Learning Chip

April 6, 2017

This week Google released a report detailing the design and performance characteristics of the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), its custom ASIC for the inference Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia’s Mammoth Volta GPU Aims High for AI, HPC

May 10, 2017

At Nvidia's GPU Technology Conference (GTC17) in San Jose, Calif., this morning, CEO Jensen Huang announced the company's much-anticipated Volta architecture a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Facebook Open Sources Caffe2; Nvidia, Intel Rush to Optimize

April 18, 2017

From its F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif., today, Facebook announced Caffe2, a new open-source, cross-platform framework for deep learning. Caffe2 is the successor to Caffe, the deep learning framework developed by Berkeley AI Research and community contributors. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

MIT Mathematician Spins Up 220,000-Core Google Compute Cluster

April 21, 2017

On Thursday, Google announced that MIT math professor and computational number theorist Andrew V. Sutherland had set a record for the largest Google Compute Engine (GCE) job. Sutherland ran the massive mathematics workload on 220,000 GCE cores using preemptible virtual machine instances. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Debuts TPU v2 and will Add to Google Cloud

May 25, 2017

Not long after stirring attention in the deep learning/AI community by revealing the details of its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), Google last week announced the Read more…

By John Russell

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Russian Researchers Claim First Quantum-Safe Blockchain

May 25, 2017

The Russian Quantum Center today announced it has overcome the threat of quantum cryptography by creating the first quantum-safe blockchain, securing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, along with classified government communications and other sensitive digital transfers. Read more…

By Doug Black

Groq This: New AI Chips to Give GPUs a Run for Deep Learning Money

April 24, 2017

CPUs and GPUs, move over. Thanks to recent revelations surrounding Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), the computing world appears to be on the cusp of Read more…

By Alex Woodie

DOE Supercomputer Achieves Record 45-Qubit Quantum Simulation

April 13, 2017

In order to simulate larger and larger quantum systems and usher in an age of “quantum supremacy,” researchers are stretching the limits of today’s most advanced supercomputers. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Messina Update: The US Path to Exascale in 16 Slides

April 26, 2017

Paul Messina, director of the U.S. Exascale Computing Project, provided a wide-ranging review of ECP’s evolving plans last week at the HPC User Forum. Read more…

By John Russell

Six Exascale PathForward Vendors Selected; DoE Providing $258M

June 15, 2017

The much-anticipated PathForward awards for hardware R&D in support of the Exascale Computing Project were announced today with six vendors selected – AMD Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This