A Robot is After Your Job

In shock news for journalists the world over, computer algorithms can now generate editorial and news pieces. This very article could, in fact, be the result of a sophisticated piece of artificial intelligence rather than the endeavour of an inky-fingered hack burning the midnight oil in order to meet a deadline. Some readers (or maybe the publisher of Gafencu) might even prefer the CPU to the cliché, or cannot tell the difference, in which case why would it matter?

Because, dear reader, while you’re perusing this on your tablet, screen or mobile (or even in print) someone else is working out how to automate your occupation, too. Would your job get done more efficiently if a robot did it? It would almost certainly get done more cost effectively but surely the bigger question is: what would you do instead? Would you even be given a choice as to what you’d do next? After all, the only difference between being a Lotus-eater and a lazy, lethargic job-seeking layabout is the ease and means of subsistence; or to put it another way, who’s going to provide you with an income when the robots take over once and for all?

Sci-Fi fantasies from H G Wells onwards have presented different visions of what life could be like once we let machines do all of the hard work. On the one hand we have movies like Metropolis, I, Robot, Westworld, A.I. Artificial Intelligence – darkly dystopian in their outlook and brandishing a message twenty-feet high not to trust those blooming robots (or the people who control the robots) one inch. On the other hand… well The Jetsons was fun.

Even a work that professes to show a futuristic Utopia, like the Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World, is strictly ironic and subversive. OK, the inhabitants of London in AF (After Ford) 632 don’t have to work hard, they have a steady supply of drugs – the hallucinogenic soma – and promiscuous, recreational sex is encouraged. But love, the family, and human reproduction are strictly things of the past. A class system operates with different castes conditioned to accept their station in life. Oh, and everyone is euthanized at the age of 60.

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But back to the wholesome Jetsons and their space-age world where advances in science have created a labour-saving device for every job. In the Hanna-Barbera cartoon George Jetson works an hour a day, two days per week, but the running gag remains that everybody is overworked and life is still full of inconveniences. George certainly doesn’t have access to soma and straying from his homemaker wife, Jane, is not on his agenda. Which vision of the future are we more likely to find more credible in light of our experiences since The Jetsons first hit TV screens in 1962? Yes, darkly dystopian, every time.

Of course, we’ve been here before. Didn’t the industrial revolution herald mass automation, scientific advances, new trends in employment, the destruction of crafts and mass migration? If jobs were dumbed down, that was nothing to the realisation that menial workers could be replaced with machines – cheaper and more reliable according to many a mill owner. Actually, that’s not entirely true, because if you think about it, it was the workers themselves who were deployed as low-skilled, low-paid automatons, mechanically delivering repetitive tasks to drive the great machine.

Before the industrial revolution, artisanal life and work wasn’t anywhere near as systematized and was governed by seasons and daylight hours as much as anything else. People didn’t work anything remotely approaching the number or hours factory rotas imposed on them – whatever the privations of a simple peasant life it wasn’t hard work that was likely to kill them first. Social reformer Robert Owen first advocated ‘Eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’ for workers back in 1810, when 12 to 16-hour shifts, six days a week, were the norm.   200 years on, many would still see that as an attractive target.

When the Luddites tried to preserve the dignity – and wages – of labour over the machine by smashing stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms, they were severely dealt with by the authorities (executions and transportation to set a clear example) and castigated as the enemies of progress. It’s not known who came up with the expression ‘You can’t stand in the way of progress’, but it’s a sure bet it was a capitalist rather than a scientist or a trade unionist.

Mass-production requires mass-consumption to prevail, which Huxley recognised when he coined the slogans ‘Ending is better then mending’ and ‘The more stitches, the less riches’ in Brave New World. There the inhabitants are unquestioning consumers, presumably because machines are doing all of the work and life is structured according to means. In our world, however, while consumerism is driven by corporations hell bent on maximising bottom lines, how do you sell to consumers who are getting lower paid by the year, and whose jobs are increasingly threatened by further automation of labour?

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A recent study by McKinley predicts that new technologies could jeopardise between 40m to 75m jobs worldwide by 2025. Not only is that figure truly staggering, it’s pertinent to examine exactly where in the world these impacts will be felt the hardest. Because in a truly global marketplace, where labour can be organised beyond national boundaries and international freelancers can undercut each other to perform digital tasks, governments aren’t always best placed to protect jobs. The rise of organisations – from banking to consumer goods, from energy to transport, from agriculture to media – hell bent on expansion and world market domination has superseded trade agreements and taxation norms in shows of power and influence that could not have been imagined fifty years ago.

As the major objective of most global corporations is the pursuit of the dollar, it’s not likely that their workforces will suddenly start to earn an income designed to keep them in the lap of luxury and leisure for working the same hours as George Jetson. They will become the 21st Century equivalent of mill workers, unless new and better jobs come into play. And, unchecked, at what point will that lead to civil unrest and revolt (the unintentional digital revolution)?

It will never happen they say – imagine that your job did get taken over by an intelligent machine, the perceived wisdom has long been that new jobs will be created as a result (rather in the same way that online shopping may cut retail jobs but boosts the delivery and courier sector). But if a job is reduced to turning the robot on and off, that’s not going to require a skilled worker, and one worker can turn on a lot of machines. According to some futurologists it’s the middle classes who stand to lose the most. Where, previously, they were encouraged to pursue an education and climb the skills ladder, soon they’ll be scrabbling for low-paid jobs. If you don’t believe that, the next time you go for a coffee just ask your barista what degree he or she holds.

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Aldous Huxley was right about consumerism though – in Brave New World the leisured classes shared in the wealth created from automated manufacturing and could afford the goods produced. That’s not a model recognisable in today’s global economy where fewer hours worked normally means less income.   With more people unemployed and living in reduced circumstances there will be less money available to spend on manufactured goods – at what point does the capitalist imperative reach a limit where supply outstrips demand and a downward spiral ensues? At what point do governments or global entities decide to give away goods to justify production, running the machines at a loss in order to keep the populace in check?  In a world where the richer are getting richer and the poor getting poorer, it’s understandable to anticipate that that’s not going to happen any time soon, but it’s also clear that the current polarisation of wealth cannot persist – political and social factors will seek a redress, either democratically or otherwise. The rise of the robots will merely hasten the arrival of that point in time.

What jobs are most at risk via automation? The Internet has seen off encyclopaedia salesmen and Yellow Pages, it’s true, and armed with a smart phone you can now do numerous tasks for yourself that you used to depend on others for in the not-so-recent past. Banking staff, travel agents, music store retailers, photographic film printers and librarians have all felt the chill wind of progress, and when was the last time you popped into Blockbuster? Uber may be trying to revolutionise how you order a taxi, but their next goal is to dispense with the actual drivers. It’s coming.

One undisputed career opportunity the rise of the robots has presaged is that of cyber-crime. Is the anonymous online criminal helping himself to your bank account the equivalent of a Luddite? No, he’s just a modern-day Dick Turpin (or if you’re of a romantic outlook, Robin Hood).  But mugging you online is the easy bit, for every advance in software can be infiltrated and over-ridden. Hackers these days aren’t only interested in your money – they can hold governments and corporations to ransom in a variety of ways, from selling personal data, driving your car into a ditch, or turning the lights out all over Europe.

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That’s humans at work though, using – abusing – technology. What about the oft imagined

Armageddon where machines will eventually take things into their own hands? Like Hal 9000 in 2001 – the sentient computer that goes off its rocker in Kubrick’s seminal movie. ‘I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently’ says Hal as Dave the astronaut begins to disconnect the out-of-control mainframe after it kills the crew. ‘My mind is going. I can feel it.’ How long before we hear that from Siri? Or the processor housing the nuclear button in the White House situation room?

Despite such fears it’s more likely that human-error will continue to be the main culprit for future computer-generated calamities – after all, hands up all those who have booked a flight for the wrong date, input the wrong co-ordinates into a Satnav, ordered 1000 boxes of paperclips instead of one box of 1000, and transferred a payment to the wrong account… Rubbish in, rubbish out, as they will continue to say.

Can we stem the rise of the robots, and in any event, should we even be trying to? Whether we end up with The Jetsons, Brave New World or Metropolis is going to be largely down to global, political and economic factors as well as the belief that for every job consigned to history, a new one can take its place. And what do futurologists know anyway? In 1894 The Times newspaper predicted that every street in London would be nine feet deep in horse manure if horse drawn traffic continued to grow at the present rate. Motor Car? What‘s that?

And as for journalists being replaced? I would like to apologise for some very poor decisions I’ve made recently. My mind is going. I can feel it.

 

A version of this article appeared in Gafencu magazine, January 2016.