I suspect that almost everyone is aware that many factory jobs are being replaced by robotic machines. That happened in industrialized nations and it is already starting to happen in places where human labor is still inexpensive - the robotics has become so inexpensive and so talented that it is becoming very difficult for human labor to compete.
The threat of robotics is also held over existing workers as a warning not to make demands: some say that Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group (they build for Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Nokia) is making just such a threat when they recently announced plans for more automation. This may be just a heavy handed bargaining ploy rather than a real intent to buy more robotics, but even if that is true, the fact that the threat can be made at all is disturbing.
The loss of skilled manufacturing jobs is real. Those who may have once held a good paying job in that area may have seen either robots or "outsourcing" replace them. Their jobs may have moved overseas or simply have been usurped by machines in the same factory they once reported to every workday morning. Some of those people found other jobs, perhaps at lower pay or perhaps not. Unfortunately, some older and less skilled workers never found work again.
Yet, some rosy optimists will point out that while an unemployment rate of 10% or so in the U.S.A. is historically high, this is a "glass half full or half empty" proposition and the glass is still 90% full - the vast majority are not part of that 10% figure. The pessimists will carp that those who gave up finding work entirely are not part of the 10% either and that the 90% or so who are employed includes those who are under-employed: they had to take jobs that pay far less than their former wages and may not be paying them enough to survive very long.
How rosy or dangerous things really are is something to be argued elsewhere. My purpose here is to say that things are only going to get worse.
Human creativity has long been held up as the shining beacon that separates us from machines. Sure, the robots may replace the assembly line worker, but that was mindless work anyway. We'll retrain those people for better jobs. They'll become "knowledge workers" and will have happier, more productive lives.
That rosy picture has a great falsehood in it. A factory that formerly employed a thousand assembly line workers may only need a small handful of "knowledge workers". What happens to the rest of the people? What happens to those too old or simply not smart enough to be retrained? Oh, well, that's the unlucky 10% - the rest of us will do fine, right?
We're "creative", you know. We have "skills". We're smart, flexible, clever. No machine will ever replace us!
No? A recent article in The New York Times titled "Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software" shows how the legal profession is under assault by computers.
That's disturbing, especially if you are currently pursuing an education in Law. But that's just research, after all. Surely the creative capability of the human mind will still be needed and valued? Indeed, it's not hard to find lawyers talking about "symbiosis" - recognizing the value of computers, but still seeing a need for humans.
Yes, there will be symbiosis. But how many law clerks will have to find other work? Someone is quoted in that "Armies" article as saying that one lawyer could replace five hundred. That doesn't paint a rosy picture for prospective lawyers, does it?
The only profession I can think of that is safe from computers and robotics is politics. I don't think human beings will ever be ready to give up their leadership to computers. Behind the scenes, computer software may in fact be providing more and more of the guidance the politicians depend upon, but we'll probably never trust machines enough to make that an actuality rather than a de facto reality.
Everything else is in danger, from the world's oldest profession to skilled brain surgeons. Both of those professions are already seeing the beginnings of the robotics that will replace them and there are very few job areas left that have not seen at least some influx.
That will only increase.
Not even crime will remain as a human endeavor. When android robots become cheap enough, they will be used for petty street crimes. The image of the ghetto dealer purveying illegal substances could someday be replaced by an intelligent, autonomous robot that would self destruct if threatened by police!
That's fantasy today, of course, but you can probably understand how real that could become. It's even easier to see all the other "skilled" labor that will soon be replaced: auto mechanics, barbers, short order cooks.. that 10% figure is going to swell, isn't it?
Surely some things are safe? Novelists? Poets? At the highest end, yes, at least for now. But the daily grind is very vulnerable. Even today, it is likely possible for a computer to churn out a formulaic detective novel or a bit of advertising fluff for a web page. The computer might not yet be able to produce what a master of the craft would create, but that's today. What about tomorrow?
Don't think that there will always be a need for humans to design those computers. Chip design has already exceeded human abilities - computers will be designing software soon enough.
The reality is that in a very short span of time, there will not be much need for human labor. The promise of "knowledge workers" will not be enough - only a very few highly skilled or highly creative jobs will be available and the competition for those jobs will be at an intensity we can only imagine now.
This is not centuries away. It is decades at best and it could be less. It's reality. It's our future.
No amount of education or retraining will be enough. The outlook for human employment is beyond dim, it's effectively pitch black.
What are we going to do about this?
We can't very well have billions of unemployed people living at the poverty level. What social construct can fix this? Will it be forced symbiosis? That is, will we force companies to employ workers they do not need to stand or sit alongside the machines that are actually doing the work?
Will we have a Luddite revolution? Will our society be torn apart by violence and war? That's a serious possibility, isn't it?
Socialism or misery?
The choice seems to be socialism or misery. Made up work, or revolution.
Will people be happy with "false" work? Will the masses revolt? Will we have to create a new welfare class because there will be no other choice?
This is real, and these are choices we will need to make sooner rather than later.
Those who will see this as too socialistic need to open their eyes to reality: nobody's work is safe, which means that the only people with wealth will be those who already have it. No more land of opportunity, no more plucky stories of the poverty stricken person who made good - that's all gone. No amount of education is going to be enough as the available jobs dwindle away.
So what then? These are problems YOU will have to face, even if you are among the most talented who will keep their jobs the longest. The barbarians will be gathering at the gates even while you are still safe inside the walls. Don't stare at their unhappiness with smugness: you could be joining them next year or even next month. If you think 10% unemployment is bad, imagine 99% and imagine it worldwide!
This is not centuries away. It is starting to happen now and the pace will only accelerate. What are you going to do and what do you think society needs to do?
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© 2013-07-25 Anthony Lawrence