The widening gap between investment in job killing technology and in job creation for human workers makes nonsense of political leaders’ promises to “focus on job creation” and their exhortations to young people to stay in full timed education and saddle themselves with debt in order to get a degree qualification. This dehumanisation of industry and commerce means the prospects look bright for robots and computers, but where do people stand in the food chain? On the fringes unless you live on inherited wealth or are part of an academic and political elite.
We are bombarded every day with news of new uses for computers and machines that initially augment but will eventually replace human labour. Google claims to have developed cars that drive themselves, algorithms can write news stories from data, compose music or poetry and it is claimed, though somewhat exaggeratedly, fool real people that they are conversing with other humans (in tests the only people fooled were computer scientists, and they are not real people; they’re nerds). In Japan, and increasingly in the west, factories run “lights out” for weeks at a time with little or no human presence required. We are surely heading towards a jobless economy.
Historically, technology revolutions spawn waves of creative destruction that produce new kinds of jobs. For instance, the industrial revolution put artisans out of work but employed legions of unskilled laborers. The upshot of this was the Luddite riots, when gangs of skilled workers–Luddites–fearing for their livelihood would burn mills and factories, smash machines and even abduct relatives of the owners.
Today, all over the developed world, national unemployment rates stand at its highest point for many decades. In Spain, one of Europe’s most threatened nations in the current debt crisis thanks largely to its commitment to “sustainable” energy which left factories silent and homes in darkness until the already heavily indebted government started to import electricity from France’s nuclear plants, the unemployment rate is a shade over 20 percent, or one-in-five. There and elsewhere, out of work protesters are taking to the streets. The so called “Arab Spring” uprisings were not a result of a desire for democracy triggered by a single speech as Barack Obama likes to claim, but of the hardships imposed by high unemployment, downward pressure on wages as a result of this and by rising prices impacting on living standards.
Everywhere, as the global population explodes, work–which is one of the secondary human needs, not essential to sustain life but important in sustaining a community and giving individuals self esteem–is being done by machines, and jobs are being destroyed. As a long time Information Technology professional, I am more aware than most people of the damage inflicted on society by the internet. We are all required to laud and extol the ‘Net as one of the great technological advances, yet apart from making us all more likely to be socially isolated, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and shortening the attention span, it has been a huge job killer in many sectors of the economy. In many of Britain’s town and city centres, up to a third of shops now stand empty, victims largely of the switch to online trading.
A new book, “Race Against the Machine,” from MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, argues that jobs lost since the Great Recession haven’t returned partly because companies have invested more heavily in automated technology, rather than hiring (outsourcing, aka off-shoring, is another cause). The authors spell out the consequences in an article published in The Atlantic:
The threat of technological unemployment is real. Politicians may try to divert attention with a lot of windbaggery about “abolishing child poverty”, building fair society and equality and human rights issues, but it does not change the fact that most of us need a job or occupation for most of our lives.
Nobody is immune from the threat of being made redundant by a machine. Administrative and sales functions are being automated, and though customers might hate dealing with robotic voices instructing them to press a number for ordering, another for checking delivery and another if you want to yell at somebody, in the end machines are cheaper, do not call in sick, do not join unions, do not get pregnant or injure themselves playing dangerous sports. In the coming decades, advanced pattern recognition software and AI-driven systems will replace much of what knowledge workers do today, including those in the retail, legal and information technology industries.
The trend has led experts like Douglas Rushkoff to question if work is obsolete and if society should continue to organize itself around employment or look for other ways to occupy humans before they descend into self destructive lifestyles through sheer boredom. Others, mainly those who would themselves prefer to be machines as they have never been comfortable with emotions, view this labour revolution with optimism, claiming that we have a place alongside machines. It is making us confront the fundamental question of what humans are good at and potentially expose a greater meaning to life. This is all very well, but in this scientific utopia probably 80 percent or more of us would find no place for our skills. The nerd elite do not much care for music, art, literature or poetry — the very things humans excel at and, from experience, I can tell you machines are utterly hopeless at.
One fan of this drive to make us the slaves of machines has written, “Over the next decade, while machines will replace humans in some tasks, they’ll also amplify us, enabling us to do things we never dreamed of doing before. We’ll enter into a new kind of partnership with these machines—one that will shine light on the unique comparative advantages of humans: thinking, creativity, spontaneity, adaptability, and improvisation.” Really? In the fifty years since computer and digital technology started to have an impact on society, large swathes of the population have started to rapidly de-evolve, heading back towards the knuckle dragging, selfish, impulsive state of our early, early ancestors.
The World Future Society argues that industries that undergo technological transformation don’t disappear, but the number of jobs they support sure do. For instance, agribusiness employed half the population in the early 1900’s but now provides just 3 percent of all jobs. David Autor, an economist at MIT, says that the transition towards a post-industrial economy will see a clustering of job opportunities at opposite ends of the skills spectrum where machines have yet to foray.
At one end of the spectrum are low-paying service-oriented jobs that require personal interaction and the manipulation of machinery in unpredictable environments, such as cooking food in a busy kitchen, or taking care of pre-schoolers. At the other end are jobs that require creativity, ambiguity, and high levels of personal training and judgment. These include jobs that require both physical and advanced mental capabilities e.g., doctors and engineers or in tasks that involve rapid decision-making in unpredictable and unprecedented situations, such as nurses and plumbers. The nerds may hug themselves as they dream of machines that can think like humans, but forgetting the “like humans” bit, I have described how machines filter data previously (IBM to build a chip that emulates the human brain). Basically, it comes down to “If X = n, then do action.” Now that is not, by any definition, thinking.
According to sociologists, 65 percent of today’s school pupils will end up in a non-job, paper-shuffling or bean-counting in a government office or in a pointless manual task simply for the sake of keeping them occupied. Clearly the establishment and the business and commercial worlds have not thought through the likely consequences of this crazy drive to dehumanisation of work. Even the highly educated are not exempt (more graduates, less graduate jobs): Politicians, academic institutions, and business leaders need to think about what will happen to society if machines are used to make humanity redundant in the name of efficiency and profit. We are pitifully unprepared for the challenges of a world with seven billion people in it, if half those people are surplus to requirements who knows what kind of trouble they may cause just to make life interesting.
“The activities that make us human – thinking, dreaming, learning, socialising, and feeling, are the skills that are the most difficult to program. In a contest of ‘man vs. machine,’ people will continue to shine and outperform in these areas for years to come,” says the World Future Society. That’s all very well, but what about the people who aren’t equipped to be artists, musicians, writers, poets, philosophers or athletes? Apart from thinking, loving, learning, etc., what will they do? Take drugs, drink, have loveless sex? Looking around society now, there appear to be rather more of them doing those things already than the “experts” think.