(This is Part 1 of 2 articles on The Future of Labor and The Human Race. Part 2 will be linked here as soon as it is published.)
Let’s talk about the future. Of course, that’s often the topic here. I mean, science fiction is the theme, right? But, let’s talk about the near-future in reality, when robots, machines and computers do almost everything.
The theory for the last 200 years has been that automation actually ends up creating more opportunities for labor jobs. Not necessarily in manual labor, but in work over all. And, for the last 200 years, this has been largely true. Automation, allowed us, as humans, to increase our productivity exponentially. Now, we have luxury all around us, much of it like cell phones that we call necessities.
David Autor’s article from the Journal of Economic Perspectives linked above makes these points. And he makes them fairly well.
For me, personally, I’ve always thought that my work (my day job not specifically writing) was not really at risk. As a graphic designer, what I do is creative by
nature, not something computers do particularly well. In fact, that’s kind of the story when it comes to automation. Mindless labor is what gets replaced. Anything that actually requires human decisions or actual personal interaction, has generally been safe.
Is that still the case?
To me, there is something that the economic minds like Autor are not taking into account: AI.
Up until now, machines did the replacements. Machines that required humans to operate. Machines that required humans to maintain. Machines that required humans to make sure they did what they were supposed to. Artificial Intelligence has the capability to do those things just as well, if not better.
Now, I’m not talking about the “singularity” kind of AI where robots and computers like SkyNet become self aware then try to takeover and subjugate or destroy humanity. I’m talking about real-world AI that either currently exists or is in the very near future. I’m talking about technology that companies like Google and IBM are using and developing.
Take for example, long-haul and heavy tractor trailer drivers. Do you know how many people are employed in those professions in the U.S.? Almost 1.7 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic for May of 2015. And that’s not including self-employed workers, which according to StudentScholarships.org, is around 20%. So that puts the actual people working as truckers around just over 2 million.
One of the most controversial automation technologies that is seems to be becoming more and more inevitable is self-driving vehicles. One might say, though, “Oh, but no one would let a computer drive something that dangerous.” Oh yeah? In fact, safety is one of the biggest reasons why autonomous driving will hit trucking first. Check out Bloomberg.com’s article on the Diamler/Freightliner “Inspiration Truck.”
It’s a short video. I’ll wait.
All done? Ok, so, yes. This is only what they call Level 3 automation, meaning that a human still needs to be present and take over quickly (You’d know that if you’d watched the video, tsk tsk tsk). And yes, full, driverless automation is still a bit off, but maybe not as far as you think. And what happens when 2 million truck drivers are no longer relevant, safe or even cost effective?
And as the infomercial spokesperson says… “But wait! There’s more!” How about the 1 million jobs held by taxi/Uber drivers, school bus drivers and transit bus drivers? What about delivery trucks? That’s another half-million.
You see where I’m going here. And automated driving is just the beginning. A few years ago I wrote a piece about automated farming (I’ll have to see if I can find the piece). So… your low-wage farmhand jobs will probably go away soon too. What about telemarketers and people in customer service? Sorry. Have you dealt with the more advanced phone-service bots? It takes a bit to realize they’re not human.
Oh, but there’s always service jobs, right? Grocery stores, big box stores and fast food restaurants are already investing in self-serve kiosks that allow them to sell more with less real human interaction. Not to mention, those trips to the store will get even more “fun” when stores like Amazon Go start popping up.
See, the real difference here, is not just automation. It’s computers thinking. Jobs that required human thought were always kind of on this Mount Olympus of security. However, Zeus and the rest of the gods of human labor are only a few decades away from becoming unnecessary and largely irrelevant. In fact, the McKinsey Global Institute recently stated that the same kind of changes, in terms of automation, are “happening ten times faster and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3,000 times the impact.” The Economist recently had an article quoting two researchers from the University of Oxford (from all the way back in 2013) as saying that as much as 47% of jobs in the U.S. were at “high risk of being ‘substituted by computer capital’ soon.”
What does this all mean? Well, without jobs, people don’t make money. The argument has always been, if stuff costs less, companies charge less for products. If products cost less, then the fact that people making less money is less important because they can afford more with their lessened income. (Whew, that’s a lot less) Then they have more time for other stuff, which results in more products and more jobs, etc, etc, etc.
That’s the theory. The problem is, even with people making less money, there simply won’t be enough jobs at all. AI automation will create the largest job-extinction event in human history because it will span every industry and every nation at nearly all job levels. Sure, not all at once. The process will take decades. But when it does, people will have less money to buy the things that will keep the companies going. And when people don’t buy stuff, companies don’t make money.
Again, see where I’m going with this? It’s kind of bleak. Fear not. Well, not too much. Because not all is lost. In my next post, I’ll try to take a look at what a post-labor future might look like and how it might not be so bad. Maybe…