A short essay that got out of hand and became a long essay
Automation is coming. It’s coming sooner than you think. Self-driving cars are getting better every day. Artificial intelligence is getting better every day. Dozens of companies are throwing money at the problem; dozens of different technological innovations are converging. Within my lifetime, and probably much sooner than that, we’re going to see the Apple II of general purpose robotics, and then it’s game over.
It’s no secret that middle class, blue-collar jobs have been bleeding away for decades. For the average Joe, a large percentage of the jobs remaining are either retail, manual labor, or driving. And we’ve already got self driving vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before these are widely implemented, and then you can kiss driving jobs (the most popular jobs in 29 states, the trucking industry accounting for 8.7 million jobs) goodbye.
And what’s left? Yes, there are still actual grown-up career jobs out there. But cashiers and retail salespeople alone make up six percent of the workforce. Throw in janitorial, food service,and warehousing, and you’re up to something like twenty percent.
Keeping that in mind, watch the following two videos and ask yourself how much longer it’s going to be before a robot can push a broom, make a latte, work a cash register, or build a shelf display. And then that’s the ballgame. Retail, foodservice, and warehouse jobs will go the way of the carriage-makers.
Experts predict that automation threatens 47% of all jobs.
It’s not good or bad, it’s inevitable.
The payoff is just too sweet. For most businesses, labor is far and away the biggest expense. Even at starvation wages, a full time employee earns maybe 20,000 a year. It’s too early to know what the price point is for a retail robot, but even if it’s forty or sixty or eighty thousand, that’s still a no-brainer.
Being able to replace an unreliable, needy meatbag with an employee that can work 24/7, never takes a break, never gets sick, never steals, and never loses his temper, all in an investment that will pay for itself in two or three years. There’s just no way it won’t happen, once it can happen. Once the technology is available, the changeover will be so fast it will make your head spin. Don’t believe me? Twenty years ago, if I said that in twenty years your grandma would have a smart phone she could watch streaming television on, what would you have said to me?
And it’s not just manual labor jobs. It’s not a stretch to imagine these same robots filling out paperwork, filing forms, doing office work. The sad fact is, many human jobs would be done better by emotionless automatons. As these technologies are refined, more and more high-level jobs will be replaced. Hell, even fiction authors aren’t safe.
It’s important that we start thinking about what the world is going to look like when there simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone. Depending on our reaction, this could be a very good thing or a very bad thing. In the past, it’s always been true that new technologies that destroy jobs create an equal number of jobs, and things balance out. But we’re reaching a tipping point.
It can go in one of three ways. Either we become Luddites and outlaw these technologies, artificially maintaining the status quo while we continue to be slaves to jobs we no longer need to do, or we descend into distopian robo-capitalism, where the rich own the robots and the poor, no longer necessary, are left to go pound sand. Or, we can have robo-socialism, a society where people don’t really need to work, where people don’t need to justify their existence with labor, where their basic needs are provided for by automation.
Ignoring the issue and letting the free market solve the problem is probably the worst thing we could do. The free market is an amoeba. All it knows how to do is grow and consume. In the last decade, we’ve seen the results of the free market’s myopic pursuit of shareholder value, in terms of both economic and environmental damage. If we just leave capitalism to it’s own devices, it will, as it always does, saw off the branch it is sitting on. And it will take us all along with it.
We have to ask ourselves, will the traditional economy even exist any more? What will happen to the price of goods when goods are produced by robots? If a tomato plant is planted by an autonomous robot, watered and tended by a robot, picked and packaged by a robot, loaded by a robot into a robotic truck, then driven to the supermarket where it’s sold by a robotic cashier, what does it cost? Would the savings be passed on to the consumer, or the owners? Is the concept of cost still even relevant? We are going to have to revise our most fundamental economic beliefs.
And hey, why shouldn’t we all just relax a little bit and let the robots do the hard work?
The concept of universal income is gaining traction as a solution to this problem, the idea that the government would simply pay everyone a basic wage. I’m not an economist, so I can’t comment on the program’s viability or the nitty-gritty details. But I’m shocked at the opposition to even exploring the idea. The most common argument I hear is, “I ain’t payin’ no taxes so some lazy poor folk can steal my hard earned money!”
This is…I just can’t. We are talking about liberating the human race from the need to work to survive. This is an evolutionary turning point on the order of the invention of fire. We’re talking about a world where the basic necessities of life can be provided as a basic human right to every citizen. Where we can discard this brutal, Puritan-Calvinist-Malthusian system we labor under. A world where we can all have robot butlers, for God’s sake.
An extension of that argument is that without the motivation of having to work to avoid being homeless and starving, humanity will descend into sloth and debauchery.
To explore that argument, let’s take a look at the historical example of European aristocracy. This was (and is) a class of people with enough money that they didn’t really have to work. It’s true, some descended into orgies and parties and excess. You had your DeSades and your Antoinettes. But other aristocrats made some of our most fundamental scientific discoveries. Ada Lovelace. Robert Boyle. Tycho Brahe. What did they have in common? They weren’t doing what they do in order to keep food on the table. They simply had the benefit of the best education available, and then they had the time and the money to pursue their curiosity.
Or, look at Elon Musk. He was a billionaire before he started Tesla motors. He could’ve just kicked back and played video games, but instead he decided to revolutionize the automotive industry. I seriously doubt he’s doing it for the money. He’s doing it because that’s what he wants to do. That’s his passion. When you free people from the need to do some stupid, monotonous task, the need to be a cog in a machine just for the sake of constantly earning their right to exist, then they’re free to pursue their passion. And that passion might benefit all of us.
And for every Elon Musk out there, there are ten thousand people who just want to make music or write or open a little coffee shop. And, by being free to follow their passion, they’re also, in their own small way, making the world a better place.
And, of course, some people will just want to get drunk and go fishing all day, or maybe take a few years off and travel around the world. The thing is, if there are enough resources to go around, if you can slack off without indirectly stealing somebody else’s labor power, then who the hell cares?
In conclusion, the robots are coming for our jobs. And if we play our cards right, it could be a very good thing.