Judgement Day

Is Automation Destroying our Future?

At 02:14 am EST on August 29, 1997, in an alternative movie universe Skynet became self-aware and launched a nuclear strike on Russia to induce a counter strike that would ensure the mutually assured destruction of humanity.

However, with the help of the future Governor of California as a killer robot sent from an alternate timeline, Sarah Connor changed the course of history, and here we are alive to talk about it today.

But what if it isn’t over? In the sequels, the machines never stopped trying to win, so what if we allow James Cameron’s vision to become a kind of reality?

Well, in many ways, we are doing just that.

What is society going to do about it?

According to researchers at Oxford Economics, a commercial venture of Oxford University’s business college in England, since the year 2000, more than a quarter-million jobs in the United States have been lost to robots. And at least 20 million more will be lost globally by the end of this decade. Essentially, on average, eight jobs are lost for every five new robots brought into the workplace.

Industrial robots are getting cheaper (average $75K); they never take time off, they never complain, and they pay for themselves within a year or two.

Foreigners and immigrants aren’t taking jobs. Machines are.

This issue is not new

In 1950 about 10 million out of 150,000,000 people in the United States were working in the farming industry. Today, nearly 3 million work on farms feeding a population of 330,000,000 due to, yes, some imports, but primarily increased automation and technological efficiency.

Not new at all

In 1589 an inventor named William Lee created a stocking frame knitting machine to speed up the process of hand-knitting. [Fun Fact: more than 430 years later, the principle of his machine’s technology is still being used.] Anyway, when seeking a patent for his invention from Queen Elizabeth I of England, Lee found himself kicked to the curb by her virgin majesty.

Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.

The Hosiers’ Guild (a sort of medieval union) was very concerned that the skills of its members would become redundant. So, being granted a patent by King Henry IV of France, Mr. Lee left the country for Normandy to set up shop in Rouen instead. He did very well.

Harsh punishment indeed.

Deskilling

As manufacturing technologies continued to improve into the nineteenth century, the positions of artisan craftspeople were put into ever-increasing jeopardy. Production became more mechanized, and factories began to take over the primacy of the artisan workshop.

The work that one very well-trained and skilled artisan accomplished became divided into smaller tasks that required less skill but more people to finish. This deskilling took power away from the artisan and gave it all to the production facility owner.

Further, we should note that inventions to be deskilling were created deliberately. For example, the inventor of the game-changing Cotton Gin (i.e., the cotton engine, patented 1794, which separated cotton fibers from seeds), Eli Whitney, understood the need for interchangeable parts and, even more so, interchangeable workers. He clearly said the idea behind his machine was;

to substitute correct and effective operations of machinery for the skill of the artist which is acquired only by long practice and experience; a species of skill which is not possessed in this country to any considerable extent.

Continous deskilling remains part of the system today as it allows capital to overpower the only asset of labor. I.E., the scarcity or supply of their talent.

The assembly line

Prior to the assembly line, workers in a factory setting would have to move to different locations to carry out their work. However, with the new method of continuous-flow production, the factory worker could keep a position as their work came to them.

New production techniques, along with interchangeable parts, meant products could be put into mass production. Therefore, what was once a one-person job was now carried out by multiple people, substantially reducing work time but also increasing the amount paid out in wages.

The first assembly line dates back to 1804, where the Portsmouth Block Mills in England made parts for the Royal Navy and remained in continuous service until the 1960s. It wasn’t until assembly line production was adopted on a large scale, however, that the likes of Henry Ford could introduce it in 1913 to be used by unskilled, and therefore even more vulnerable, workers.

Where do we go next?

As machine automation has increased on something approaching an exponential curve during the past 100 years, we can also see computers taking over jobs.

Oxford Economics analyzed the job moves of more than 35,000 Americans over their careers and found that more than half the workers who were automated out of production jobs in the past two decades went into three occupational categories: 1) office and admin, 2) construction and maintenance, and 3) transportation.

These three will likely be the most vulnerable to new automation and job losses by 2030. The Oxford researchers say the challenges will be daunting;

These findings, however, should not lead policy-makers and other stakeholders to seek to frustrate the adoption of robot technology. Instead the challenge should be to distribute the robotics dividend more evenly by helping vulnerable workers prepare for and adapt to the upheaval it will bring.

Of course, the problem with the naivety of that thinking is we know for sure the owners of production and their political puppets couldn’t give a damn about vulnerable workers, so, as always, the poor will be screwed.

White-collar jobs are being lost too

Do you remember going into a bank and doing your business personally with a person? I do, but I only remember going into a bank once in the past decade to sign something. Other than that, I do all my banking online, get cash from the ATM, and get paperless statements emailed to me. Working in a bank was a good occupation. Now, like supermarket cashiers, it is fast becoming a thing of the past.

How about those eighties movies that glorified money like the Academy Award-winning Wall Street and the brilliant comedy, Trading Places? Remember all those men on the trading floors screaming at each other and making deals and paper orders flying everywhere? Gone. All computerized now.

Telephone workers have all but disappeared. Okay, I’m not going to complain about that one, especially the lack of diabolically annoying salespeople spoiling dinner with their bullshit calls.

Drivers of London’s iconic Hackney Carriages (recognizable as oversized black taxicabs) would spend about three years learning every twist and turn of London’s thousand-year-old city to know the best routes and shortcuts around town. This extraordinary skill is called “the knowledge.” Every driver has to pass exhaustive tests with it before being licensed to drive the Black Cab. Nowadays, any kid in London with a cellphone can be an Uber driver.

Travel agents? Gone. We can all book our flights on our phones.

Medical Diagnosticians are going into obsolescence. Imagine all those years getting a bachelor’s degree and then an MD before specializing in diagnostics, and boom, health care diagnostics are computerized. Millions of patient records and clinical trials, along with every medical text and journal, can be analyzed and compared almost instantly by a computer to create the best diagnosis for a patient, along with their treatment plan.

Where do all the people go?

In the late seventies and early eighties, the use of computers really took off and, as a result, lowered the wages of office workers who had been previously doing tasks like spreadsheets by hand.

Those people tended to shift their focus towards low-skill service jobs. Therefore, having changed little since 1950, the share of labor working in the service industry rose by 30 percent between 1980 and 2005.

This saw net changes in US employment figures go U-shaped. Meaning that there was an expansion of the lowest skilled and highest skilled jobs and relative declines in middle-income employment that had been traditionally routine and easily computerized.

This explains somewhat the increase in executive pay and the flat rate of low-income pay in the workplace today. The extraordinary amount of computer data through the internet available to highly-skilled, high-income people enables those in managerial positions to finely tune their decision-making and make more profits for their organization, and, of course, increase their personal salaries and bonuses.

Meanwhile, there is a need for more service people to work for the new gig economy of apps and start-ups. However, the skill level compared to the relative supply of potential workers is always going to keep wages in this sector down to as near to minimum wage that businesses can get away with paying.

Education is no longer the panacea

For decades the Western World has pushed the idea that a higher education and college degrees would be a guaranteed ticket to a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. And it was. However, once the bottom dropped out of the middle-income market for routine, white-collar work, it pushed those with a higher education into lower-skilled work and many low-skilled people out of the market.

Unless it is in a highly professional and sort after field, a college degree from anything but a top school isn’t much good in the market nowadays. It is typically nothing but a decades-long albatross of debt. Meanwhile, campuses are not a place of learning anymore, so much as a weird indoctrination into a cult. Which doesn’t help.

To that issue, POTUS#45 signed an executive order directing the federal government to seek relevant work skills rather than giving precedence to a college degree in job applications. A decision with which I agreed wholeheartedly.

Are any jobs safe?

The fear is a return to the Downtown Abbey existence, with the many working for the entitled few in personal service as robots and computers have taken most jobs. However, there are always going to be some careers that require the human touch.

Humans are far better at jobs that require emotional intelligence, creativity, interpersonal skills, and entrepreneurial drive. Nurses, caregivers, pastors, coaches, artists, and all those that work closely and personally with people will probably be okay. As will salespeople, politicians, therapists, and anyone requiring genuine charm in their business.

Highly creative work is unlikely to ever become computerized. Think of the range of human experience that a computer would need to simulate the richness of life, be it heartbreak, sexual desire, irony, teenage confusion, existential fear, spirituality, or ambition. Could it write a movie that kept one on the edge of the seat or compose a love song that could bring one to tears?

Personally, I don’t see it happening unless the A.I. singularity occurs and the machines become self-aware.

Also, no matter what President John Quincy Adams had to say, unfortunately, there is very little room for everyone to become a poet or the modern equivalents in a capitalist society. Because, as the shift towards millions of people having a blog, podcast, YouTube channel, etc., has made abundantly clear, most people are not particularly talented.

Out of the box we must think

There has to be some new thinking to stop the impending disaster. But what is the problem we will have to face? David Autor, a professor of economics at MIT, gave his academic view of the problem to the BBC;

In the long run, automation makes us more prosperous overall, but it creates income distribution challenges, with the people towards the bottom being crowded out. If we manage to create resources without a huge labor demand, the problem will not be, ‘Oh no, there’s no jobs!’ but ‘Oh no, we have lots of wealth – now how do we distribute it?’

But the problem will still be that there are no jobs if we maintain the current trajectory of spiteful capital. The entire mindset of the USA and the capitalist world would have to shift the idea of redistribution of wealth, taking away from the individual and giving to the collective.

This also brings up keeping government small but somehow ensuring the distribution of wealth doesn’t only result in the have yachts, and the have nots.

Let’s be honest, 16th Century French aristocrats or 21st Century American billionaires, what’s the fucking difference? And if things keep going as they are, how long before the poor start getting their French-on and baying for the guillotine?

UBI

It sounds like an STD, but UBI or Universal Basic Income is an idea that may be coming of age. It came to prominence during the 2020 Presidential Race when tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang was running for the Democratic Party nomination and made it the central message of his campaign.

Yang has been the only candidate on a national stage to address a problem coming at us faster than Sha’Carri Richardson runs at her weed dealer.

What do we do as the jobs run out?

His proposal, every American over 18 years old gets $1,000 per month to do with as they will. If they have benefits that are somehow more than that, they keep them, but everyone gets only one or the other.

The benefits are that it would give Americans some wiggle room. They don’t necessarily have to take the first job that comes along; they have negotiating power. It provides a cushion for entrepreneurial risks. It may just allow people to work fewer hours with less stress. On the government side, everyone getting the same payment per month should reduce some administrative costs.

The plan would be paid for by a 10% Value Added Tax to consumer purchases.

Naysayers counter that it doesn’t make sense to give the same amount of money to a millionaire and a single mother in a trailer park. Or that money in West Virginia will go so much further than money in New York City. Others say that it is an excuse for people not to work so hard.

On the other hand, there are real-life examples like the members of the Cherokee Nation who receive payments from the casino on their tribal land and Alaska residents who get an annual dividend from oil and gas revenue. According to a study, Duke University researchers claim there is a negligible effect on work and earnings and no effect on the labor supply in these examples.

Agree with Yang or not, at least, unlike every other politician out there, he thinks about this problem. Does he have the solution? Is there a better idea? Because, as with climate change, capital is betting in a high stakes game that a solution will be found before it’s too late while not doing anything to slow the problem in the meantime.

Ultimately, I’m sick of this nonsense and think the world needs to figure out something soon. You know, for the sake of the kids and all that shite. Molloy