The machines are growing. They are getting smarter, and they are coming… for your jobs. We have experienced scares in automation before, but now we are finding ourselves faced with a future of smart phones, smart cars, smart everything. Don’t be fooled. Skynet is going to take over, but it’s not going to enslave humanity so much as make it obsolete, at least in the workplace. Before you know it, you could find yourself terminated, and unlike any movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, this means less of “joining the human resistance,” and more of “joining the human unemployment line.”
A New Virus for McAfee
According to Andrew McAfee in his book The Second Machine Age, we find ourselves in the midst of a machine revolution. This is not the type that takes control of our nuclear launch codes and sends oddly quixotic bipedal robots to attack us. No, this revolution has to do with the automation of our lives. If Google cars can replace taxi drivers, and software can replace computer coders, than we are heading toward a world where the machines will no longer need us. We’ll be like an old operating system on an iPhone, obsolete and full of bad choices. Robots, automation, and software are getting to the point where they can do our jobs better, faster, more accurate, and -more importantly- cheaper, and the best example of this lies with self-driving cars.
They are already real and they already work, well sort of. Some estimates say that there will be about 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020. For many that means being able to watch Harry Potter while driving. However, for truck drivers, bus drivers, cab drivers, construction equipment operators, garbage truck drivers, and many more like them, this automation means unemployment. This group will possess an entire skill set that is no longer required in the economy. Consider that conservative estimates put current transportation jobs as employing a little over 3.5 million people in the US, but this new technology could cost as many as 10 million people their jobs. For instance, the auto-parts industry employs almost 1 million people, many who will be downsized. This new trend also have the potential to drop the number of cars on the road from 245 million to just 2.4 million vehicles. So, the auto-insurance industry, the rental car industry, the used car dealers, even the parking lot industry, are all going to take hits. That is a lot of people out of work, and its just the tip of the iceberg.
Blue collar, white collar, professional, and even creative jobs are all at risk. There is software that can take care of payroll, budgeting, advertising, and even human resource problems. There are computers that can answer the phone, sound human, and be responsive enough to solve people’s problems. Computer programs can even write stories, news articles, and compose music. Computers are even being given the capability to write and improve computer code, including their own -which admittedly seems by Cyberdyne to us. However, it also means that even the jobs that create computers which threaten your job, could themselves be threatened by automation downsizing. As for doctors and lawyers, they have an app for that. With the advent of wearable biometric technology -such as FitBits- you are no longer going to need to have regular physician check-ups. Your phone will be able to tell you everything from your cholesterol to your blood type. It will warn you of an impending heart attack or diagnose that sniffle you woke up with. You may still have to see an actual specialized doctor for serious issues, but general practitioners will eventually become a thing of the past. Similarly, there will still be lawyers, but all the grunt work of law will be done by computers, not interns or pre-law students, or even Charlie who has failed to make partner for thirty years. Less lawyers, less doctors, less teachers, less policeman, janitors, grocery store clerks… Hasta La Vista.
Resistance is Futile and Unnecessary
Conservative estimates put unemployment rates in this new economy at 20%, but it could run as high as 75% in the long term. So what do we do? How do we fix this automation annihilation?… Maybe we do nothing. Anything we try to do to bolster a human driven economy over automation is only going to delay the inevitable and perpetuate the dangerous idea that humans have no purpose in life but to work. After all, why the hell do we work forty or fifty years at jobs we barely tolerate? What do we get out of it? Satisfaction? Maybe if you’re one of the lucky ones. Even worse, we condition ourselves to believe that it is our employment that makes us useful or fulfilled. We make work to make jobs to make more work to make even more jobs. How many people often retire and have no idea what to do with themselves? It is because they have been conditioned to think that they need to work and they have never experienced a world where that was never true. Jobs are -in essence- prison walls. “First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
Back in our hunter-gather days, estimates put an average day’s work anywhere between four and six hours. -Of course 25-30% of hunter-gathers also died by homicide, but that’s a whole other issue- The point is that we have to ask ourselves if the purpose of human life is to sit behind a desk, earn a wage, pay into a pension, and wait for death once you retire? Twenty years ago, futurist believed that we would only be working about a 25 hour work week, because we would have things like 24-hour access to our messages, devices that would let us work from anywhere, and computers that could take a lot of the necessary grunt work out of our lives… Well, they were right about everything, except the length of our work week. Even with our automation it stayed at 40-hours, not because of necessity, but because of fear and tradition. It is arguable that our current 40-hour work week does more harm than good, yet we cling to it, because of fear: fear of poverty, fear of the unknown, but also fear of uselessness. So maybe a robot uprising is not the worst thing that can happen to a lot of people. After all, there will be plenty of work to do in the human resistance… or you’ll just be dead, but to many that might be more preferable to being obsolete. Because without work, what would be do?
Answer: The Impossible
As automation improves there will be economical difficulties. Our products will become cheaper, faster, and more disposable. Yet, that doesn’t mean all the problems will be solved. If we find ourselves in a world with 75% unemployment, welfare is going to skyrocket and possibly collapse. With this new world, our economical thinking will have to be adjusted, and maybe it is time to revisit an idea that Nixon himself once suggested. A Guaranteed Minimum Income would give everyone over the age of 18 or 21 a small base annual income and take the place of Social Security, Welfare, and Unemployment. In 2006, conservative intellectual, Charles Murray, suggested eliminating all welfare transfer programs and substituting an annual $10,000 cash grant to everyone 21 years and older. The Alaska Permanent Fund does just that. It’s not communism, as people can make additional money on top of a minimum income, but it is a small cushion to help people, especially those who have been terminated by a toaster.
We do not mean to get too preachy here, but it must be said that maybe it is time we start basing our society, our lives, and our purpose on this planet a o more than mere acquisition of wealth and material. That is an instinct within us that stems from days when resources were scarce and each winter was a struggle. The US is a society of abundance -not for everybody but certainly the majority- and that is only going to grow as technologies like 3D printers, automation, and robot overlords give us what we want for pennies instead of dollars. Maybe it is time to find new meaning in life, especially in the United States. Maybe it is time to look toward the acquisition of knowledge, the creation of creativity, or the ability to help others as the driving forces behind society. We’ve talked a lot about Terminator, but maybe to get answers we really need to look to Star Trek.
Boldly Not Going to Work
The Federation, is a society built not upon commerce or greed but upon discovery and the maximum potential of humanity. They are not driven by the need for objects or money, because why would they be? They don’t need or want anything. You want ice cream? Boom… replicator makes you ice cream. You want to go to the beach? Boom… teleporter. You want the latest fashion? Download them and replicate them… Boom… The only thing left to them to get excited about or hungry for is discovery and creation. Art, music, poetry, and science are the driving factors of the Federation… And the occasional Borg invasion. Some utopian Earth of automation is not going to happen in the next fifty years, but does that mean it is not a worthwhile goal. It may seem overly optimistic, but when you think of the future, wouldn’t you rather shoot for the optimism of the Federation over the ruin of Skynet?
Either way, we need to prepare for what is coming, because like a bad sequel starring Jai Courtney the automated economy is going to keep coming up again and again in the near future. It’ll be back…