When It’s Good to Lose Your Job: What Automation Means for the Future of Work

Looking back through many (admittedly subject-oriented and therefore somewhat biased by necessity) lists of quotations on the subject of work reveals an interesting trend: until roundabout the mid-twentieth-century, one of the most consistent predictions about the future of Western Culture included a diminishing work-week.

And why not? From the perspective of that future (a.k.a. today), production has only increased since the late 1940s. Surely this would progress until we each need work only a few hours every workday.

“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” –R. Buckminster Fuller, 1970

Today is little different, except that there is every indication that, very soon, all that will be left is the inspectors and the inspector inspectors–and soon not even them. I’ve linked to CGP Grey’s Humans Need Not Apply video in my basic income post, and that’s absolutely relevant, but I want to talk about a new article today.

The article to which I just linked describes the plight of Amazon warehouse temp workers, whose job it is to package items in boxes which are not filled according to any definite pattern–for example, when you order a coffee mug and a t-shirt and a DVD, it’s unlikely that it is necessary to program a robot to do this particular packing over and over and over again. In the end, it’s still cheaper to use people, for now. The temp workers are complaining that they are forced to stand in line–specifically, without pay–when exiting the warehouse at the end of the day, going through security to make sure nobody stole anything. A valid complaint.

It won’t do them many favors in the long run, however. Once pattern recognition algorithms become good enough to dynamically package non-standard contents into any of a variety of standard containers–basically, do the job these people are doing–there goes the temp contract. And Amazon doesn’t have any incentive not to do this; robots make fewer mistakes, their repair periods are minuscule compared to workers sleeping or changing shift or getting tired, their cost can be distributed over thousands of hours of uptime…the benefits of robots over humans for menial and not-so-menial labor is, whenever it becomes possible for a particular task, nigh incalculable.

“Not-so-menial, you say? What about the specialties? Artisans and experts?”

That Guardian article says the same thing (imagine that!):

“Computers and robots may be immaculately efficient, but they’re still no smarter than jackhammers. They can’t replicate the ingenuity and insight of the artisan and the expert.”

If you’ve watched CGP Grey’s video, you’ll already know that both the artisan and the expert are hardly immune.

And this is not a bad thing! The future could be a wonderful place of leisure and abundance…so long as we take care to make it that way.

Here’s where we get to the point behind my headline: automation is good. Or rather, it can be good. I will point you to a rather speculative but very interesting short story from Marshall Brain, the person who runs How Stuff Works. Manna–short for “manager”, a program which improves employee efficiency by breaking work down into discrete steps that are then communicated via headset to the worker–describes two possible futures: the one where automation benefits the few executives who own the companies while everyone else lives in identical concrete block housing, and the abundant future where automation enables everyone to live a life of endless leisure. I encourage you to read it; it’s very quick.

I want to leave you with one last piece of information. If you’ve read what I’ve linked to here, seen the video, and still don’t believe that automation is the inevitable future of mankind, take a look at this. Manna is real; it’s only a matter of time before the rest follows.

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