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Productivity, computers, AI and wealth

© August 2015 Anthony Lawrence

Sometime in the late 1960's, I worked in a carpet mill as an assistant to the General Manager. I don't remember much about my duties, but I do remember the Accounting Manager. Actually, not him so much as his office, which abutted a larger room with twenty or so desks. A window in his office gave him a full view of that room, which would have let him supervise his clerks.

There were no people in that room, though. There was dust on the desks, and on each was a mechanical calculator. These were the type with a hand crank - you'd input your numbers and pull the handle to get printed results. I'd used such machines myself; they made a distinct sound, but now it was all silence. This once noisy Accounting Department had been replaced by outsourcing to a computer somewhere. That transition had happened before I was hired, but not so long ago that the room had been repurposed.

The manager still had one of those calculators on his desk and made daily use of it.

The significance of those empty desks and unused calculators wasn't lost on me. I realized that people had lost jobs and that this was probably happening all over the world. But that wasn't cause for concern: the unemployment rate in the U.S. was well under 4% and was probably even lower in my state. Those people wouldn't have trouble finding jobs and wouldn't even need a college degree.

I had no degree. I don't recall what my job at that mill paid, but I'm sure it wasn't much. Yet I supported my non-working wife and infant daughter on that income. We had to watch our spending, but we survived.

The world sure has changed, hasn't it? My functions at that job have long been replaced by computers, but even if someone had a similar job today, they couldn't support a family. If I could have forseen that, I woud have been very surprised. I knew that computers and robots would be replacing people, but I saw that as a good thing. People would have more leisure time and everything would become less expensive. Eventually no one would work and the cost to manufacture anything would be so close to zero as to not matter.

Naive? Well, yes, but then again what is the alternative? Robotics and AI are replacing humans at an ever accelerating pace. No job is safe - with the exception of politicians, ironically. You can easily see the trend and it doesn't take any great imagination to see where it ends: no available work at all. No waiters, no artists, no poets, no analysts. When? Twenty years, forty, a hundred - whatever number you believe, the end is still in sight and there will just be more misery alomg the way. You, the highly educated skilled worker, will be "safe" as factory jobs dissipate. You'll probably be mildly surprised when you first visit a fast food restaurant that employs no humans, but as you summon a robotic taxi to take you to your next meeting, you'll have already pushed any worries about your own work deep into your subconscious.

Perhaps you will be one of the last. Your human skills and education will still be valuable as unemployment exceeds all previous records. You'll complain about the high taxes necessary to support the masses of "unskilled" people who lack your advanced degrees. You'll demand solutions: educational programs, birth control, maybe even euthanasia.

One of your close friends loses her job, replaced by analytical software. You rationalize that your work is safe because your work requires creativity, but reading about new AI advances in just that area is worrisome. And then one day the reality you never thought could happen comes true. The AI software that has been running the company you work for these past few years has been upgraded and it can now do your job too.

What the hell archy, what the hell?

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