EDITOR’S NOTE: This op-ed was originally posted Aug 29, 2014.
For more than 100 years workers and their unions have designated a day to parade and celebrate labor, working people, the jobs they do and advances they have made. Over that time, the nature of that work has transformed dramatically from farms and factories to offices and cubicles.
Those changes were hard on many as they fell by the wayside in the struggle to keep up with the need to improve skills and fit into the next level. But as hard as it was for some, the transition we will all soon face will be much faster and wilder and more difficult to keep up with than most will ever imagine.
With every previous change in work, in all of the revolutions, some jobs were destroyed but others were created. Humans always got a step ahead of the complexity and remained smarter than the labor-saving devices they created. By doing so, they kept the jobs to run them. The reward of that progress was a steady improvement of the standard of living for those who kept up.
We are now entering the next job revolution — the robot revolution. Debates are raging in academia, high tech, finance and in the military, about the impact all the new machines will have on humans and jobs. Every day new technology is launched that exceeds yesterday’s capacity. Technology cost is dropping so rapidly business hits the easy button to switch over and the ubiquitous transition from human jobs to automation is seen merely as a curiosity, like the receding sea before a tsunami. It’s quietly happening while most of us are just too busy and distracted at work to see the robot tidal wave coming or to focus on a plan to build a new economy around it.
Jobageddon is coming and many futurists believe we’ve passed the tipping point as job losses will accelerate over the next two decades. The proportion of Americans in the labor force has declined steadily since 2000 but now it’s being noticed more. An Oxford University study released in 2013 suggested that half of American jobs can be automated by 2035, and a follow up study found the same for Europe.
Meanwhile the business press tells us not to worry — jobs are lost every day and new ones get created. Always have. Always will. That’s like saying we can survive nuclear war because we survived previous wars. Things change.
And change is happening as Google and others launch their robot vehicles — cars, trucks, cabs, buses, bulldozers, and forklifts that move smarter, faster, cheaper, safer than humans. America has over three million jobs in transportation and hundreds of thousands of others with humans in operated machines. As humans are replaced at the controls some people will still be hired to manufacture, service and manage them, but far fewer than the jobs they displace.
Job replacing robot stories are just starting to be reported in main stream media. The Courant’s recent story about the new Saint Francis Hospital automated lab was big news. A machine tests blood samples and reports out results faster, better, and more accurately than the humans in those jobs. And by the way, it cuts “operating costs.” In other words, fewer lab workers jobs. But that wasn’t the main theme.
If you think your job is unique and only a human can do it . . . think again. Computers double their abilities every 18 months and costs are dropping rapidly. In 20 years they will be 8,000 times faster and smarter than they are today and dirt cheap. Everyone is now getting in the game.
A couple of college kids just invented a machine in their garage called Monsieur. It takes your drink orders from the Monsieur app and pours a perfect cocktail to your specs and remembers it so it can pour the next one exactly how you like it. Monsieur is coming soon to a bar near you. So, there’s a few hundred thousand bar keeps that’ll be looking for work, while a few thousand new Monsieur sales and repair jobs will be created . . . of course as technology races forward a Monsieur-fix-it-bot won’t be far behind.
It is not a matter of whether most human jobs will disappear, it is only a matter of when. Then we will be faced with significant social and economic policy meltdown. Unless we begin to act now.
Many workers, unions and activist groups are pushing hard to raise the minimum wage to $10 or $15 per hour. Opponents say it will harm the economy, drive up costs, and cost jobs. Supporters say humans should be able to pay their bills, and the wealth gap reduced.
Both sides ignore automation which becomes more cost effective as workers become more expensive. We need to improve wages and benefits, and make sure humans are funded but we also need to be aware as we do so that we are racing the robots to jobaggedon.
Raising the minimum wage puts the jobaggedon issue in play sooner and that’s good. The debate needs to include everyone with more focus on the future. We won’t stop the advance of technology, and we really don’t want to. We do need to plan smarter to be ready to adapt to rapid change. That includes activating commissions on the future of jobs and organizations and politics that work on the policies needed to ease us into our new future.
How will our economy function with many fewer human incomes and more free time? Who will buy stuff if no one is working? Keeping the economy ticking over may require clawing back some of the wealth that has been accumulating at the top. Governments can employ people to do the things that robots still can’t, like teach and take care of folks. Some nations are already experimenting with giving every citizen a stipend. There is a small but growing cadre of people and countries that get this and are beginning to act — but we’re not and we surely need to get moving. The transformation is not that far away and big changes in our lives are coming soon.
When robots end up doing all the work we hope they and their unions will keep the tradition alive and celebrate Labor Day . . . and maybe we can watch the parade, we’ll surely have the time to do it . . . If we start planning now.
Leo Canty is a retired labor and political activist. James Hughes Ph.D is the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford.
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