Over the last few years I have covered this subject a number of times, the likely impact of rapid automation on jobs and society at large. Other voices have been raised on the same subject, warnings from far more important figures, and a few that may be a bit smarter than me.
Suddenly this weekend it’s as if the media have noticed what has been said for so long, either that or it’s just another attempt to distract people from yet another bad government policy, it happens so often it’s hard to spot these days, they all sort of blur together, the bad news and the cover ups.
Anyway it’s about time this started getting looked at rather than just being dismissed as a few nutcases spreading silly stories.
There are massive problems with the rapid pace of technology being developed specifically to replace humans in jobs, widespread unemployment being one, a further concentration of wealth in the hands of those rich enough to own the robots another.
For those who point to history and mock the loss of jobs. Yes, historically technology made large numbers of people and jobs redundant, the Victorian industrial revolution for one. But in each case after periods of difficulty people migrated into new industries that were creating jobs, mostly by relocating to the cities. Decades or generations went by between the jumps in technology that made the farm workers redundant or cut the mill workers jobs. Even so there were years of local hardship as those who had lost their jobs struggled to adapt and find work elsewhere.
This is not the case today nor will it be the case in the future. Technology is advancing at such a pace that automation is quicker than retraining those made unemployed by automation at their last job. Manufacturing, the service sector, all are looking at high levels of automation. Those factory workers replaced by machines will find the call centre jobs gone to a Turing emulator long before they can get through the three month interview stage.
Outside of the craft industry which is mostly a cottage level and dependant on people with the right skills working in small workshops or from home manufacturing is going the way of the dodo. Raw materials dug up by robots, shipped on drone trucks to companies that will make parts in automated facilities then shipped in robot drones to automatic assembly plants where yet more robots turn them into cars. Outside of very specific areas where handmade and crafted brings in a premium and in a limited number of creative areas few jobs are safe from the rapid pace of automation.
As a society the west places high values on workers for their ability to work and not for what they are as human beings, the political catch phrase 'Hard Working' is used in every other sentence by our leaders and this attitude is deeply set within out political culture.
So when people cease to be ‘Hard Working employees’ and instead become economically inactive, suddenly their entire worth to society vanishes, they are ignored or actively attacked by our leaders. Almost as if a person is of value only while they are a cog in the corporate machine.
This is the attitude that will condemn millions not just to poverty, many workers are there already, but to humiliation, and the cruel treatment that is a daily event for those at the mercy of our government and departments of the same such as the department of workless persecution.
Those unable to work due to illness or disability have been in the news a great deal recently, people who need help from the state instead being dealt harsh blows, the £30 cut in ESA, the removable of Personal independence payments, tens of thousands of disabled cars taken away from those with no other way to get about. This is the way that the most needy are treated by our society under the guidance of our Tory government.
The disabled can’t work and so they are treated like this because only the ability to work seems to be valued in our world. But what is the difference between someone who cannot work because they are disabled or too ill and someone who has no job to apply for because everything within range has been automated? Even that staple of teenage job seekers, the burger place, have been experimenting with automation rather than give out pay rises.
Anyone think it will remain small scale or restricted to the US when it is proved to cut costs by sacking staff?
Without a massive and I mean MASSIVE change in the attitudes of our political and corporate leaders, mass automation and replacement of humans with robots will be a disaster for two thirds of the population and ten years from now current levels of poverty will seem like the golden age.
Then we have the ever accelerating wealth transfer, the overriding desire by corporations to cut costs and increase profits and by the rich to get ever richer. This money comes from those who are not rich and as jobs are lost to automation the amount of money in movement across the whole of our society falls steadily.
With austerity at its current levels and yet more cuts expected to pay for those tax cuts to the already wealthy in next week’s budget a huge number of people are effectively out of the economy.
Subsistence level income going toward a limited number of must pay costs with little left for the extras like consumer goods. After rent, rates, utility bills, food and clothing there are millions of people left with not much.
Certainly not enough to be out shopping for all those items they would like but don’t need. Which isn’t good news for the people making and selling those items. Which is the point, the more wealth is concentrated the less it moves around, people with some money spend it because they need to eat and cloth themselves and pay bills, the money is in circulation. When they lose their jobs they stop spending money, the corporation that sacks them may make an extra billion a year in profit but who exactly is buying what the corporation sells?
There are now quotes and calculations circulating that over the next few years US companies could cut $9 Trillion in Labour costs (wages), for every corporation focused on nothing but the profit margin that is a fantastic figure, huge profits all round, pop the champagne. But what they and our leaders fail to look at is that much of that $9 trillion is wages that will then be spent back into the economy. Who is going to buy the things you make or the services you provide if most of your population have no money to spend.
The every richer tiny percent of the population aren't going to buy the millions of items in the shops or the hundreds of thousands of new cars or use the services of all of those support companies.
Automation, robotics and the use of Turing emulators could help everyone by giving them more free time and a better, more rewarding life. But to achieve that we need a huge about turn in our attitude towards work and working, something I don't see as likely given our current political leadership and the corporate and market driven headlong charge for profits.
The future could be bright but only if we don’t let our current corporate and political masters control it.