In this, the year of our Lord, 2015, we are poised upon a dilemma most of us are still in denial about or perhaps don’t even know is happening. Automation is catching up to us. The ability to automate and use robots, algorithms and other technologies to replicate or replace human labor entirely is growing at a staggering rate.
Automation, robots and algorithmic intelligence are poised to liberate millions from their terrible jobs. However, it doesn’t address what people need to do, when they’re not employable any longer.
One such study indicates that nearly 45% of all labor potentially able to be done by Humans can and will be done by automation/robots/algorithms (ARA), sooner rather than later. This type of unemployment is often related as “Structural unemployment.”
Structural unemployment is a form of unemployment caused by a mismatch between the skills that workers in the economy can offer, and the skills demanded of workers by employers (also known as the skills gap). Structural unemployment is often brought about by technological changes that make the job skills of many of today’s workers obsolete, and can be addressed by either providing better information to workers who are structurally unemployed or by retraining these workers to fill new jobs that are in higher demand in the economy.
For example, in the 1970s automobile assembly lines employed people to make welds on cars being produced. When automation replaced those workers with robots in the 1980s, there was no longer the same demand for welders among manufacturers in the automobile producing states. However, at the same time, there was a strong demand for welders in other sectors of the economy (such as the oil industry) and in other parts of the country (such as Alaska and the Oil Patch states). If welders laid off in the auto industry were informed of these job opportunities (and were sufficiently mobile) they could find employment and would no longer be unemployed.
And before you make the standard knee-jerk reaction of: “So train people for new work” argument, understand “new work” isn’t just falling from the heavens. We are finding more of our workforce will be out of work faster than new work can replace the jobs lost, even if education were free and available to everyone who wants it.
There aren’t enough new jobs for all of the people who will lose one, in the coming decades. For example: 70 million people are involved in the transportation industry moving goods, people, equipment and resources all over the world.
Another way of addressing structural unemployment would be retraining workers with obsolete job skills to work in fields that need workers with a different set of skills. When welders on automobile assembly lines were replaced by robots, the demand for welders went down, but the demand for people to maintain and program automobile assembly line robots went up. Workers who lost their jobs as welders on assembly lines when robots were introduced could be retrained to maintain and program those same robots. Those workers who were able to successfully retrain to maintain and program assembly line robots would no longer be unemployed, and less structural unemployment would exist in the economy.
Because it requires either migration or re-training, structural unemployment can be long-term and slow to fix.
But imagine if the technology for automated cars becomes real. Within a decade, anyone who drives a car for a living will most likely be replaced by a tireless, perfect driver who never makes mistakes, whose driving record will be far better than even the best human drivers. They won’t have to stop and rest, they won’t have to worry about fatigue and they won’t be texting and driving. Ever.
In addition, they will have access to information resources indicating weather conditions, road conditions and any other resources necessary to their efficient function, 24 hours a day. Humans simply cannot compete with this level of efficiency.
No job is truly safe from this inevitable development of ARA, blue collar, or white collar, hell, even some artistic jobs may fall by the wayside as machines prove the divide between our organic computer and their silicon one grows smaller every day.
It’s time to address what this may mean to Humanity as a whole and how we are going to address the future of a world where the bulk of the work available in the world will have a sign that says: Humans Need Not Apply.
Automation is inevitable. What will we do when most work in this nation is automated? Watch this video and decide where you are going to end up when this happens.
Update: After I talked to a few friends, we had a conversation about what should we be looking at if we want to address this problem.
You see, there is element here we didn’t talk about when we were looking at robots replacing you at the workplace. Robots replacing humans wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, humanity working eight to fourteen hours a day to make ends meet hasn’t really helped anyone except the extremely wealthy.
It’s clear that work is mostly taking care of the elite rich and everyone else is just getting by at least for the last 35 years, give or take. See: Wage Stagnation.
The real purpose of work is to keep people employed enough to pay for things they need and return to work on Monday; little more than slavery with a salary.
Automation, robots and planned algorithmic intelligences would ultimately bring that to an end. Machines would do what they have always done. Put people out of work.
Sometimes people were fortunate and they could be retrained for newer or at least different work. This has always been the way of technology until now. Our technologies now have the potential to end work as most of us know it.
What no one mentions is:
“What happens to your consumer driven economy when no one can afford to buy your robotic industry-made technologies made without Human labor? Can you even have a consumer-driven economy when the bulk of your workforce is unemployed, through no fault of their own?”
So what do you do when robots have taken away the bulk of the labor market as we know it?
I have been accused of hyperbole in this regard but I want you to understand something: Companies are in the throes of doing this very thing right now. Here is just one example.
Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars
Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan city has set up an unmanned factory run almost entirely by robots. The factory has since seen fewer defects and a higher rate of production.
In Dongguan City, located in the central Guangdong province of China, a technology company has set up a factory run almost exclusively by robots, and the results are fascinating.
The Changying Precision Technology Company factory in Dongguan has automated production lines that use robotic arms to produce parts for cell phones. The factory also has automated machining equipment, autonomous transport trucks, and other automated equipment in the warehouse.
There are still people working at the factory, though. Three workers check and monitor each production line and there are other employees who monitor a computer control system. Previously, there were 650 employees at the factory. With the new robots, there’s now only 60. Luo Weiqiang, general manager of the company, told the People’s Daily that the number of employees could drop to 20 in the future.
“Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars.” Techrepublic.com. N.p. 30 Jul. 2015. Web. 14 Jan. 2016. http://www.techrepublic.com/
It’s time to consider something completely revolutionary, of course. I will not be going into great detail in this essay. I may revisit these ideas in greater depth, but they seemed important enough to at least acknowledge them. We are going to have to find ways to sustain our current economy until we can move away from the idea for people to have something, someone else has to get rich for that to happen. We have to get rid of the idea that access to education, learning, and opportunity is limited to the elite .01 percent of society who deserve the efforts of the rest of the Human race for their personal enjoyment.
Every Human being is born with the same grey matter which derives the sum of our experiences. If we are to develop as a species, we will need everyone to be able to participate and bring their considerable 100 billion brain cells to the table. No matter where a person sits on the Earth, they possess the potential to be the best of us, the smartest, the kindest, the wisest of us. Our species savior is most likely sitting in a shanty town or favela somewhere living a life of quiet desperation.
We will also need something for people to want to do, something to aspire to, something which can benefit not only individuals but all the species on the planet. Most importantly, we have to give the capacity for human development to the maximum of their potential to everyone on the planet.
(1) Basic Income (from basicincome.org)
A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement. It is a form of minimum income guarantee that differs from those that now exist in various European countries in three important ways:
- it is being paid to individuals rather than households;
- it is paid irrespective of any income from other sources;
- it is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered.
Liberty and equality, efficiency and community, common ownership of the Earth and equal sharing in the benefits of technical progress, the flexibility of the labour market and the dignity of the poor, the fight against inhumane working conditions, against the desertification of the countryside and against interregional inequalities, the viability of cooperatives and the promotion of adult education, autonomy from bosses, husbands and bureaucrats, have all been invoked in its favour.
(2) Saving the Earth (example: the Great Green Wall)
The Great Green Wall or Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (French: Grande Muraille Verte pour le Sahara et le Sahel) is a planned project to plant a wall of trees across Africa at the southern edge of the Sahara desert as a means to prevent desertification. It was developed by the African Union to address the detrimental social, economic and environmental impacts of land degradation and desertification in the Saheland the Sahara.
Other examples include: the anti-desertification effort in northern China, see Three-North Shelter Forest Program.
Creating a worldwide series of programs whose collective mission is to repair the damage done to the Earth by Human habitation. Let people spread out and reclaim soil for smaller more sustainable communities. Reverse desertification, clean and process the evidence of human habitation.
Regulate the remaining resources of the Earth in a way where we are slowing the creation of greenhouse gases, restabilizing ecosystems, slowing the destruction of non-renewable old-growth forests, the biodiversity of the Amazon and other regions under stress from Human habitation. This could be the most important movement the Human race would ever undertake, the goal to stabilize the planet before the ecosystem which sustains our species collapses, first in the oceans and then everywhere else. Once this happens, humanity will experience massive losses of life unseen on Earth in eons.
(3) Create a world-spanning space program
Rekindle the enthusiasm for space the world had in the 1960s. Devote, significant time, energy, money and resources for the development of new programs to move humanity toward real exploration of the solar system with the goal of building a significant presence, first on the moon, then on Mars.
This would require the creation of resources to get materials into space using a cost-effective, reusable means, reducing the amount of space garbage floating around the Earth, refining our space science and technologies for building facilities capable of sustaining humanity for long periods on other worlds, with the ultimate goal of establishing footholds in the solar system capable of sustaining Humans indefinitely without life support services from Earth.
While this planet-wide operation is taking place, on the ground there needs to be a renewed effort for optimizing our current technological footprint, improving our energy supplies, while reducing our needs for fossil fuels, relying on renewable, cleaner energies where possible.
(4) Government-sponsored research and innovation expansion (more money spent on science and less spent on war spending)
Innovation redirected away from creating useless consumer gadgets and start working toward greater empowerment of individuals toward a universal species-wide good.
Two examples of such a technology would be:
- A safe, nearly perfect form of birth control which can be activated without major surgery and is easily reversible, giving everyone the option of choice that is theirs and no one else’s. While we have always used birth control, it has always been a compromise between effectiveness and safety. The birth control of the future removes risk and offers convenience for everyone, male or female. Given the problems of overpopulation and disproportionate ages in population, the ability to control contraception might ease populations growth in a controllable manner.
- An energy storage device/technology which allows us to store the energy created by renewables to be used during periods of greater demand or when there is slack time (night, no wind). This battery technology has to be durable, reliable, minimally toxic and capable of being used in series to provide enough power for towns or small cities.
- References: Why Batteries Suck, NPR, Forget Wearable Tech: People want better batteries, NPR.
Robots, automation, and algorithmic intelligence may be the greatest thing to happen to humanity if we pay attention at this critical juncture and make the decisions we need to make to save ourselves.
Or we could just do more of what we’ve been doing, allowing the rich to distract us with technological gadgets, mindless entertainment, dulling our capacities and our pain until we are nothing more than cattle, waiting to be fed and driven forward until machines can do all of our work and there is no need for us at all.
Robots and planned machine intelligences (the expression “artificial intelligence” has never worked for me, if a machine is complex enough to come up with an idea that a Human mind has never considered, the intelligence isn’t artificial, its as real as yours or mine.) may free us up to do the most important work our species has ever done.
Your job and mine is to convince our so-called leaders to recognize the fragility of our existence on Earth and get ahead of this problem of growing structural unemployment, happening worldwide, and getting to the important work of protecting our home planet for future generations.
And ultimately to leave the planet of our birth and take to the stars.
This post was originally published on the Basic Income blog on Medium and is republished here with the permission of the author.