Is technology creating a 'Downton Abbey' economy?

Jobs can now be automated on a scale never before imagined, hollowing out the workforce and creating even more inequality.

We are seeing a global land rush led by the cashed-up barons of the digital globe – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Foxcom and Facebook – to hoover up the emerging start-up operations that have been leading the way into the next technology boom – artificial intelligence. 

Most of the visible action is taking place in the financial markets, where huge sums are being outlaid for projects that are sometimes nowhere near break-even.

Artificial Intelligence has been the holy grail of the cyber world since the days of the first primitive computers. Now its applications in combination with other advances in digital technology, especially communications, range from the trivial through the practical to the unthinkable. 

The fiscal returns promise to be quite substantial. But what of the employment implications? 

It was back in 1930 that John Maynard Keynes warned of a new disease that few had heard of but which, he told his readers, they would "hear a great deal in the years to come – namely, technological unemployment". This referred to the threat posed to unskilled employees who could be replaced with machines. 

Unemployment remained high in the US through the Great Depression. When peace was restored in 1945, the US embarked on a nationwide investment program in education, road building and home building that saw the discharged service men and women comfortably absorbed back into the civilian workforce. 

That did not dissuade a group of public intellectuals from writing to the president in 1964 warning that a cybernation revolution threatened because the invention of the computer was producing a system of almost unlimited productive capacity that required progressively less human labour.Computer technology an economic boon.

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Max Walsh

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Max Walsh was for many years one of Australia’s top economic and political commentators, highly regarded as a journalist, author and broadcaster. Throughout his career, Max was involved in all dimensions of the media industry, which has encompassed positions with two of Australia’s largest publishing companies and television networks.

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