originally published August 28, 2013

Automation Is Going To Take Our Jobs

That sounds like a fear-mongering headline from fifty years ago, doesn’t it? It never happened, right? But I think the time is coming when it could.

In a previous article, I discussed the prospects for what’s coming in the field of Artificial Intelligence — the likelihood that in another couple of generations, there will be machines among us which have superhuman intelligence, and possibly superhuman awareness and consciousness as well. With luck, such entities will help us make the world a far better place, by greatly increasing the world’s supply of wisdom. (Of course, much less positive outcomes are also possible, up to and including a B-movie robot uprising.) But even in the best-case scenario, where the machine minds act consistently in our interest and do their honest best to help us all out of any trouble we get in, it’s going to be a rough transition, and machine intelligence is probably going to be used harmfully before it’s used helpfully.

This is because, as I described in that article, machine intellection will come first, and machine consciousness will only be possible later on. (The former is something we’re closing in on today, while on the latter goal we still have no idea where to start.) So in the early phases of AI, intelligent machines will not be autonomous entities that make their own decisions according to their own values; they will, rather, be simply a souped-up version of the computers we know today, and will solve whatever problems they are given by their owners according to whatever criteria they’re programmed with. Which means they will mostly be serving the interests either of governmental power and security, or of making money for some corporation.

And that means that when they can do so cheaply — which they will be able to do more easily with every passing year — they will replace us at our jobs. The old fear that automation would create widespread unemployment will finally come true.

Hold on, you say — people have been worrying about automation destroying jobs for a century, and employment has remained steady. Automation has always created as many jobs as it removed. Why will this be any different?

Because the jobs that were replaced in the past were dumb work, and most people could always learn to do smarter jobs. But soon, the machines will be able to do work that’s complicated enough that the average person can no longer outlearn them. We already have a small but intractable core of persons who just can’t compete in the job market and are essentially unemployable. That pool will expand until almost anyone of below average talents becomes pretty near useless economically. And it won’t stop there: the same progression will eat the jobs in the middle levels, and even jobs now considered highly elite won’t be far behind. I think that it will move through the upper half of the human skill ladder more quickly than the lower half.

About all that would be needed for the process to get started would be for machine intelligence to understand natural language well enough to hold a coherent conversation. Once something like Siri advances enough so that it can, for instance, field a customer-service phone call without totally misunderstanding the needs of the caller, an awful lot of job categories will be doomed soon after.

Young people today already have quite a challenge ahead of them, as they try to figure out which job skills will be worth investing in as a source of long term livelihood. Almost none of today’s job skills are any sort of sure thing.

Perhaps the safest job category will be artisan work. People who make finely crafted stuff by hand in traditional ways. Whether it be violins or aged cheeses, the handmade nature is part of what people are buying. But this will only employ a small minority, and even in these categories, they’ll be subject to intense competition from machine-made products that either claim to be just as well made for less money, or which are dishonestly advertised as handmade.

The fine arts will be worse. Most people will probably feel like their need for moving art and entertainment is well met by mass-produced pop culture products. Movies and music and maybe even novels are going to be mass-produced in a way that relies on a lot of machine assistance, and these industries have already become very successful at generating avid mass acceptance and financial success by formulaic means. True creative artists will probably be even more economically marginal than they are already.

What about the professions? Doctors and lawyers will gradually end up just being the brawn while a machine takes over a lot of the difficult brainwork. And then a lot of routine medical work will start being done by robots, because they’ll be able to provide more care to more people that way. Engineering jobs will probably seem to thrive for a time, but they’ll become more and more supervisorial rather than creative, and eventually they’ll hit a wall where the number of human minds needed will drop drastically. (I expect to be retired by then, luckily.)

Jobs that need a human touch, from realtors to therapists, might seem resistant to incursion by machines, but for all the people who will insist on authentic human contact in such a business relation, there will probably just as many who won’t mind going with machines if it’s cheaper, or who would even consider the machine to be more trustworthy than a human. That definitely goes for me personally: my main memory of realtors is of one who was charming, friendly, likeable, and saw nothing wrong with editing the terms of a contract after I’d signed it, forging my agreement to the change.

As jobs start being undercut, people will probably respond with a lot of enterpreneurship. But not everyone can make a job for themselves that way. Starting a successful home business, or becoming a Youtube star, is something that just about anyone might do... but it is definitely not something that everyone can do. Only a minority are going to find any success.

So at some point in the next generation or two, a quite large portion of the adult population is likely to become unemployable. There won’t be anywhere near enough jobs for human beings. How will we respond to that? That’s going to be quite a test. For one thing, we will have to face head-on the question of whether people without economic value have a right to anything resembling a decent living — an idea that many of us consider anathema.

Almost fifty years ago, shortly after I.J. Good first wrote of a coming “intelligence explosion”, Nigel Calder blithely said that when this time came, we’d have to “disinvent work”, and lose the bad habit of spending our lives in toil. Easy to say, hard to do. A great many will bitterly oppose the loss of livelihood — even the loss of a need for livelihood. Even more will bitterly oppose any social plan that calls for supporting people who aren’t productive. Even today, I still run into fanatics who think that it was a big mistake to give unemployed people welfare at the height of the great depression. To them, livelihood without work is a great moral wrong. Don’t try to tell them that their position is equivalent to treating human life as having zero value aside from economic productivity, treating a single dollar as more precious than a unique human soul, even though that’s the end result of this philosophy.

And don’t try to tell them that at bottom, by advocating the necessity of work, they’re simply aligning themselves with the interests of the rich and powerful over the interests of working people. That’s who this philosophy benefits, and that’s who always supports its advocacy in public debate. From the point of view of the owning or ruling class, any suggestion that society needs to support its citizens even when they don’t produce wealth, is tantamount to a suggestion that we take their wealth away while giving them back nothing. Those who feel entitled to power and privilege will resist the notion relentlessly.

Public opinion currently has a good-sized majority on the side of a social safety net for those who cannot work, but it’s fragile and conditional and easily undermined, and those who struggle to undercut it often win the battle, if not the war. Once mass unemployability starts to happen, and the majority starts to realize that something has to be done about the assumption that only the economically productive are really entitled to the necessities of life, there’s going to be a hell of a political battle before it’s even possible to decide to do anything to alleviate the problem. Some of the reactionaries might well convince themselves that those who can’t produce are simply unnecessary surplus and it’s perfectly okay for them to die off... but a decade later, those same criteria might make almost anyone surplus, even them. Eliminating the surplus will eventually equate to eliminating all of us.

We have to make the choice to preserve ourselves. Eventually, we as a society will be forced to finally reject the idea that people deserve the necessities of life only if they’re economically productive.

But once the reactionary view is defeated (assuming it is), and we as a society reach the decision that the economy belongs to us and exists to serve us, rather than we existing to serve it... that only leaves us at the beginning of figuring out what to do! How on Earth will we create a social order where people live without working? Especially during a transitional period where the number of unemployable is growing fast, but the majority do still need to do their jobs? There’ll be many years in the middle where the unemployability problem is acute, but we’re still nowhere near ready to disinvent work. It’s a mighty tough social problem. Eventually, some further social/technical revolution (the advent of posthuman enhancements, for example) might reframe the problem even further and get us out of that bind, but that might take decades. I haven’t got any answers. It’s just going to be very difficult to work out. The simplest answer would, I suppose, be some kind of guaranteed minimum income, or some narrower equivalent such as food stamps, giving access to a supply of robot-made food and necessities. But there are plenty of reasons why that would hardly be an ideal result.

One thing that certainly won’t solve it is pure capitalism... without incomes of some sort for the unemployable, it will exclude more and more people, until finally the economy degenerates to just being a game played by the machines among themselves, paying each other with money they don’t even have a use for. And socialism, as we have defined it so far, is still built around people working. What on Earth are we going to come up with? Maybe only “artificial wisdom” will solve that one.

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