Category Archives: Tech

16/5/17: Technology: Jobs Displacement v Enhancement

Technological innovation is driving revolutionary changes across the labour markets and more broadly, markets for human capital. These changes are structural, deep and accelerating, and, owing to their nature, are not yet sufficiently understood or researched.

One theoretically plausible aspect of the technological innovation in terms of human capital effects is the expected impact of technology on demand for (and therefore supply of) different occupations. For example, we know that technology can act as a complement to or a substitute for labour.

In the former case, we can expect advancement of technology to create more jobs that are closely linked to enhancing technological innovation, deployment and productivity. In other words, we can expect more geeks. And we can expect - given lags in education and training - that as demand for geeks rises, their wages will rise in the short run before falling rather rapidly in the longer term.

In the latter case, there is a bit less certain, however. Yes, technology’s primary objective is to lower costs of production and increase value added. As a result, it is going to displace vast numbers of workers who can be substituted for via technological innovation. However, not all substitutable workers are made of the same cloth and not all technological innovation is capable of achieving unambiguous returns on investment necessary to sustain it. Take, for example, an expensive robot that costs, say, USD 600.000 a pop, but can only replace 3 lower skilled workers in a laundromat, earning USD16,000 per annum. So with benefits etc factored in, the cost of these 3 workers will be around USD70,000 per annum. It makes absolutely zero sense to replace these workers with new tech at least any time before the tech systems become fully self-replicating and extremely cheap. So, for really lower skills distributions, we can expect that jobs displacement by technology is unlikely to materialise soon. But for mid-range wages, consistent with mid-range skills, there is a stronger case for jobs displacement.

All of which suggests that we are likely to see a U-shaped polarisation process arising when it comes to jobs distribution across the skills segments: higher wage segment rising in total share of employment, as complementarity effects drive jobs creation here; and the lower wage segment also rising in total employment, as robots-induced increase in value added across the economy translates into greater demand for low-skills jobs that cannot be efficiently displaced by technology, yet. In the middle, however, we are likely to witness a cratering of employment. Here, the workers are neither complementary to robots, nor are they earning low enough wages to make expensive robots non-viable as a replacement alternative for labour.

Interestingly, we are already witnessing this trend. In fact, we have been witnessing it since the early 1990s. For example, Harrigan, James and Reshef, Ariell and Toubal, Farid paper titled “The March of the Techies: Technology, Trade, and Job Polarization in France, 1994-2007”, published March 2016, by NBER (NBER Working Paper No. w22110: looked into “employee-firm-level data on the entire private sector from 1994 to 2007” in France.

The authors “show that the labor market in France has polarised: employment shares of high and low wage occupations have grown, while middle wage occupations have shrunk.” So the story is consistent with an emerging U-shaped labour market response to technological innovation on the extensive margin (in headcount terms). And more, the authors also find that inside margin also polarised, as “…the share of hours worked in technology-related occupations ("techies") grew substantially, as did imports and exports.”

However, the authors also look at a deeper relationship between technology and jobs polarisation. In fact, they find that, causally, “polarisation occurred within firms”, but that effect was “…mostly due to changes in the composition of firms (between firms). [And] …firms with more techies in 2002 saw greater polarization, and grew faster, from 2002 to 2007. Offshoring reduced employment growth. Among blue-collar workers in manufacturing, importing caused skill upgrading while exporting caused skill downgrading.”

24/4/16: Silicon Valley Blues Go Into a Sax Solo…

In recent weeks, I have been covering growing evidence of pressures in the ICT sector bubble (the Silicon valley blues of shrinking VC valuations and funding). You can track this coverage from here:

Now, with its usual tardiness, the Fortune arrives to the topic too, in a rather good exposition here:

Good summary graphic from Renaissance Capital:

But, of course, what is more interesting in the sector development is the horror show of earnings reporting that is unfolding across mature segment of the tech sector. These are well-covered here:, offering the following summary:

So let's see: earnings in mature segment are falling or the 5th quarter in a row (even when you control for Apple performance); earnings of Apple (tech leader) are into their second consecutive quarter of severe pressures. And unicorns (which don't even offer any serious basis for fundamentals-based valuations, including those on the basis of earnings) are rapidly taking on water. You don't really need a CFA to get this one right...

21/4/16: Taking Sugar From the Kids Pantry: Tech Sector Valuations

In a recent post I covered some data showing the trend toward more sceptical funding environment for the U.S. (and European) tech start ups:

Recently, Quartz added some interesting figures to the topic:

Things are not quite getting back to fundamentals, yet... but when they do, tech sector hype will blow up like a soap bubble in a tub. When the entire sector is valued on the basis of some nefarious stats instead of hard corporate finance parameters, you are into a game that is what Russian Roulette is to a Poker table.

20/6/15: WLASze: Weekend Links of Arts, Sciences & zero economics

Couple of non-economics related, but hugely important links worth looking into... or an infrequent entry into my old series of WLASze: Weekend Links of Arts, Sciences and zero economics...

Firstly, via Stanford, we have a warning about the dire state of nature A quote: "There is no longer any doubt: We are entering a mass extinction that threatens humanity's existence." if we think we can't even handle a man-made crisis of debt overhang in the likes of Greece, what hope do we have in handling the existential threat?

Am I overhyping things? May be. Or may be not. As population ages, our ability to sustain ourselves is increasingly dependent on better food, nutrition, quality of environment etc. Not solely because we want to eat/breath/live better, but also because of brutal arithmetic: economic activity that sustains our lives depends on productivity. And productivity declines precipitously with ageing population.

So even if you think the extinction event is a rhetorical exaggeration by a bunch of scientists, brutal (and even linear - forget complex) systems of our socio-economic models imply serious and growing inter-connection between our man-made shocks and natural systems capacity to withstand them.

Secondly, via the Slate, we have a nagging suspicion that not everything technologically smart is... err... smart: "Meet the Bots: Artificial stupidity can be just as dangerous as artificial intelligence

"Bots, like rats, have colonized an astounding range of environments. …perhaps the most fascinating element here is that [AI sceptics] warnings focus on hypothetical malicious automatons while ignoring real ones."

The article goes on to list examples of harmful bots currently populating the web. But it evades the key question asked in the heading: what if AI is not intelligent at all, but is superficially capable of faking intelligence to a degree? Imagine the world where we co-share space with bots that can replicate emotional, social, behavioural and mental intelligence up to a high degree, but fail beyond certain bound. What then? Will the average / median denominator of human interactions converge to that bound as well? Will we gradually witness disappearance of human capacity of by-pass complex, but measurable or mappable systems of logic, thus reducing the richness and complexity of our own world? If so, how soon will humanity become a slightly improved model of today's Twitter?

Thirdly, "What happens when we can’t test scientific theories?" via the Prospect Mag:
"Scientific knowledge is supposed to be empirical: to be accepted as scientific, a theory must be falsifiable… This argument …is generally accepted by most scientists today as determining what is and is not a scientific theory. In recent years, however, many physicists have developed theories of great mathematical elegance, but which are beyond the reach of empirical falsification, even in principle. The uncomfortable question that arises is whether they can still be regarded as science."

The reason why this is important to us is that the question of falsifiability of modern theories is non-trivial to the way we structure our inquiry into the reality: the distinction between art, science and philosophy becomes blurred when one set of knowledge relies exclusively on the tools used in the other. So much so, that even the notion of knowledge, popularly associated with inquiry delivered via science, is usually not extendable to art and philosophy. Example in a quote: “Mathematical tools enable us to
investigate reality, but the mathematical concepts themselves do not necessarily imply physical reality”.

Now, personally, I don't give a damn if something implies physical reality or not, as long as that something is not designed to support such an implication. Mathematics, therefore, is a form of knowledge and we don't care if there are physical reality implications of it or not. But physical sciences purport to hold a specific, more qualitatively important corner of knowledge: that of being physically grounded in 'reality'. In other words, the very alleged supremacy of physical sciences arises not from their superiority as fields of inquiry (quality of insight is much higher in art, mathematics and philosophy than in, say, biosciences and experimental physics), but in their superiority in application (gravity has more tangible applications to our physical world than, say, topology).

So we have a crisis of sorts for physical sciences: their superiority is now run out of the road and has to yield to the superiority of abstract fields of knowledge. Bad news for humanity: deterministic nature of experimental knowledge is getting exhausted. With it, determinism surrounding our concept of knowledge diminishes too. Good news for humanity: this does not change much. Whether or not the string theory is provable is irrelevant to us. As soon as it becomes relevant, it will be, by Popperian definition, falsifiable. Until then, marvel of the infinite world of abstract.