In his book, Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut describes a world where master craftsmen and the best assembly line workers are studied and recorded in order to program robotic automation to emulate them. Work on the factory floor is all done by robots programmed to copy the movements of the best workers. These workers are paid a handsome bonus and then relieved of their jobs, just like all of their co-workers who are not as fortunate to get the bonus. The result is a massive amount of unemployment with people receiving enough to get by, but generally living aimless, drifting lives. I read the book back in the 1970s, but the haunting picture has remained with me for decades.
Now we are seeing signs that the this prophetic literature may actually come true. Automation in factories is responsible for more of the unemployment in the manufacturing sector than most people know or are willing to admit. Fortune magazine estimates that over 80% of lost jobs are due to automation or other related domestic factors. When this is told to politicians they often respond with, “Well, then there will be jobs building and maintaining the robots.” But studies show that jobs related to automation are very temporary, disappearing when the designing and building are completed, and the maintenance jobs are quite sparse (that being one of the advantages of automation, -you don’t need a large work force to maintain production).
Similarly, we are now looking at the very real prospect of a revolution in driverless motor vehicles. Once this is perfected it will impact everyone from taxi drivers to truck drivers. Big rigs moving along principal highways will be the first to go driverless. It will be more efficient because robots don’t have to sleep or stop to eat. Transit buses will likely be the next to be hit.
We’re already heading towards automated check outs at the grocery store and at MacDonald’s. It’s only a matter of time before AI tech gets to the point where employees like warehouse workers and even middle management position become at least partially redundant.
I don’t see new jobs in technology keeping pace with those jobs being lost by the above circumstances. Even if they did, there is the whole question of educating people adequately in order for them to fill those jobs. Currently there is a huge shortage of skilled workers in the tech industry, now largely being filled by immigrants because the domestic population can’t rise to the occasion. However, even if you could train the local MacDonald’s cashier or short order cook to write code for automations, I don’t think it would cover those finding themselves out of a job.
So what’s the answer? Well, Player Piano is one of the possible consequences. It describes a society that has a very polarized social strata, with many people deemed “not useful” and therefore marginalized. You see a similar story in the TV series, “Incorporated” where the engineers live inside walled cities and the majority of society are left to fend in the lawless “Red Zone”.
Another possibility is that we increase the need for productive labor by engaging in a war. A bonus to this (so to speak) is that it may do a lot to wipe out national deficits and debts as well.
But barring these dystopian solutions, what can we do to adjust our society to cope with automation? Diametrically opposed to the problem societies mentioned above is, for example, the society envisioned by Star Trek, -a utopian society where technology has solved most of humanities needs and problems, but where people still lead meaningful lives.
I would suggest that the solution involves a whole scale re-evaluation of both our economic and educational systems.
Economically, the answer lies in a guaranteed annual income, already being experimented by some countries like Denmark and Finland. The idea of a guaranteed minimum income has a long American history, as you can discover if you Wiki it, and has even been spoken well of by conservative pundits like Andre Coyne in Canada (National Post). In this model, people would have a guaranteed minimum annual income to which they could add through other gainful work. It would have to be paid for by flattening out the current polarization between the poor, the middle class and the economic elite. This doesn’t mean eliminating differences in income, nor does it remove the incentive to better your economic situation, but it does recognize that companies are eliminating jobs to increase profits. You would think that companies would recognize that they may be maneuvering themselves out of a market and towards both an economic and social crisis if they don’t “share the wealth” in some way.
Shorter work weeks may allow more people to be involved in the jobs that survive. Instead of one person working a 40 hour week (or, as is often the case, more) you might have two people working 20 hour work weeks, but with the same pay. Yes, that doubles the employee expense for the company, but that company saved the money it put out by automating. In the end it will still make at least the same profit. I know they automated so that they would make more profit, and they may still be able to do so, but not with the same impunity that they would have if they simply dismissed half or more of their work force. I am sure there are ways that could be structured so that everyone would benefit more from automation, -just, perhaps, some not as dramatically.
Then again, these shorter work weeks would produce an excess of free time. One would hope that people could benefit from this, but the reality probably is that without proper education people may feel aimless and without purpose, or may fall into traps of self gratification that will not be beneficial to anyone. The role of education has to change. Not only will it have to adjust its curriculum to the needs of this new social order, but it will have to spend more time educating the person to live rather than just to work. Much more attention needs to be given to self reflection and self improvement. A mindset that will encourage things like hobbies, self improvement, lifelong learning, and community service needs to be introduced into the curriculum. Opportunities for this kind of self improvement have to be built into the system as well as building a sense of empowerment which causes people to engage productively.
These are major paradigm shifts for both economics and education. Don’t ask me how they will be accomplished, but we don’t really have a lot of time. We’re very quickly going to make some fundamental decisions to change or to not change. The result will forge the kind of world we’ll inhabit in less than a quarter of a century.
A part of the solution has to be that we try to retain a respect for human endeavour. Just because a job can be replaced by a robot or computer program doesn’t mean that it has to be. Corporate striving for the largest profit may dictate that people be replaced with machines, but that doesn’t have to be how it plays out if we engage different economic priorities. The fact is that when I go to a doctor, I prefer a human being (even if they are assisted by technology). If I go into a small store, most people enjoy talking to the human owner. Certainly jobs in teaching, although they might efficiently be replaced by technology, would be better served with human interaction. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we have to. In the Medicine Wheel there’s a stage before doing where you examine your vision and projection of the goal. Sometimes human priorities related to that vision are more important than the purely efficient and cost effective ones. Often things that are cost efficient are only successful because there are few alternatives, and they don’t really make anyone happy, worker or customer, other than the ones reaping the profit.
It’s a tall order because many of the required changes require a social evolution that we can only envision on a far horizon. It may be a question of technology having evolved faster than society, nd faster than what is for our own good. On the other hand, the adversity and consequences may spark the necessary change, but probably at a huge cost.