Robotics, Mass Unemployment

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The concept of robots arrived along with the 20th century, as a logical progression in an increasingly industrialised and mechanised world. Pundits at the time, driven by imagination and a new landscape of endless possibilities, wove tales of how these mechanical marvels would help free us from drudgery and menial work. Since the mid-20th century many of these apparently wild tales have come to fruition with robotic technologies creating everything from automated production lines to a cute robo-dog that greets dignitaries on a visit to Japan.

Like many other people, I’ve always thought the looming robotics revolution was designed to make low-skilled, repetitive-type jobs redundant. You know the drill — self-service machines replace checkout chicks, driverless cars replace taxi drivers, ATMs replace bank tellers, and voice recognition replaces phone operators. Sitting comfortably ensconced in my white-collar, university-educated ivory tower I’ve always felt immune from the rising waters of automation. After all, as a plain English editor and writer, mine is a highly specialised area that calls for tone, finesse and logical structuring of information for a variety of audiences. This complexity means my profession may be harder to crack but I have no doubt that, eventually, the day will come. Before then, there’s a plethora of apparently “safe”, white-collar professions that are firmly in the sights of the robotic revolution. These include lawyers, scientists, doctors, financial advisers, accountants, assorted paper shufflers, money market types, and others.

If you’re in doubt, answer me this, is your job predictable? Could someone with a very detailed knowledge of everything you’ve done over the past year do it? If your answer is yes, then the robotics revolution has you in its sights. Martin Ford, author of The Rise of the Robots, believes we are facing the very real possibility of mass unemployment as a result of automation, which may require a reinvention of our economy. At the core of this is what Ford describes as the demise of the “virtuous cycle” that we’ve enjoyed since the end of World War II. So far, this cycle has worked thus: as machines become more productive their operators become more valuable so they’re paid more. This creates more disposable income, which translates to more spending, to fire the economy’s forges.

It’s Ford’s view that robotics is breaking this virtuous cycle. Take Facebook and Google. Both have massive valuations, and equally massive worldwide influence, yet they employ a fraction of the people employed by say BHP or NAB. In the new robotic age the relentless pursuit of “efficiencies” (driven by the relentless pursuit of profit) is consuming jobs and not replacing them. This won’t be a cyclical downturn but structural and permanent change that’s best described as cyber structural unemployment. What’s that quote? “Only economists and cancer cells believe in continual growth.”

That said, I reckon we’re entering the age of je ne sais quoi — the age of “a certain something”. Ask yourself, does your role require undefinable, distinctively human qualities like creativity, reading the room or finesse? A certain something that is unique to you or to being human? If so, you’ll probably be last on the list of jobs to be automated. This, ironically enough, means the future could belong to the most creative and original among us. Imagine a Changing Fortunes-style twist, where painters, poets and actors toss the odd coin to ex-white-collar types who’ve resorted to busking for a living.

In the long run, however, even je ne sais quoi will only get you so far. Replicating what it is to be human is the holy grail of the robotics revolution and a lot of very fine minds are devoted to it. In his seminal 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, writer and now-resident Google nutter, Ray Kurzweil, called that as-yet sci-fi moment (when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence) “the singularity”. While Kurzweil’s singularity is someway beyond the foreseeable horizon, once it is history then I imagine most of what we now call life will also be.

And the future for humans? Hopefully it will be all beer and skittles where robots work and we play. In my own sci-fi fantasy, we’ll all be gainfully unemployed in an economy of wild abundance or aboard the Starship Enterprise, traversing time and space, engaging alien civilisations via Babel fish. Beam me up Scotty!

The alternative, meanwhile, doesn’t bear consideration.