The Coming Age of Automation and Why We Should Be Concerned

The Coming Age of Automation and Why We Should Be Concerned

In May 1997, Deep Blue, an Artificial Intelligence powered computer beat Garry Kasparov in a chess game. This win was more or less monumental because it was the first public demonstration of the triumph of computers over humankind in such cognitive tasks as a game of chess. Even back then, computers were already being used widely in various ways because it was getting clearer that these machines could work faster and longer than humans. Before this famous chess game, however, it was still generally believed that at least in the sphere of certain tasks that involved complex reasoning processes –say a chess game for instance– humans ranked higher than computers and were thus safe from competition. That game of chess changed all that because, it acknowledged that computers were the next big things and thus very swiftly ushered in the future of automation.

Now by way of a succinct summary, automation refers very simply to the use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing process or other process and facility. Surely, you are aware that all through the ages, the gradual but steady advancement of technology has directly resulted in thousands of jobs on various factory floors being automated. What you may not hear mention of, however, is that with the development of modern day Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation has stepped out of the factory floor and has begun to seep into almost every other industry, which has prompted key questions: What form would automation take? How much impact would it have on regular jobs and by extension, on the average person in our global society?

Credit: Franck V.

I have found that there are basically two schools of thought based on the responses to these questions. The first school is filled with people who are worried that automation will take away jobs and leave a lot of regular workers obsolete by the way-side. This view is mostly held by workers on the one hand and by certain labour unions and non-profit organizations on the other hand, established to look out for the interests of the workers.

The second school of thought is largely comprised of persons and corporations that regard the guys in school one as merely crying wolf. They admit that the era of automation will take away jobs from regular persons but at the same time, they proclaim for us all not to worry because the new system will bring forth opportunities that we aren’t aware of yet, and thus create more jobs. “After all”, they say, “look at the industrial revolution; we survived it didn’t we?” The more I researched this viewpoint, the more my findings showed that it is a popular stance taken by famous profit-focused businesses, consultants and “thought leaders” we see today.

Now I will not hesitate to admit that both views as championed by these two groups hold merit and their reasonings are in certain ways indisputably sound. Truly, groundbreaking technological advancements often yield jobs. Consider the advent of the internet; while it phased out many businesses, it opened up a world of opportunities where none previously existed. However, it does not take a genius to figure out that automation will take away a lot more regular jobs than it can recreate. For instance, if one computer can execute the daily job requirements of 10 humans, does it not follow that at the very least, nine humans may lose their jobs while only one or two people get trained to manage the computer?

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Workers processing fish in Vietnam. Credit: World Bank.

Here is the disturbing truth I have discovered about the “we will survive because more jobs will be created” stance on this matter: in a bid to convince the rest of us that we would be alright whatever happens, the pro-automation advocates appear to grossly water down the consequences of this impending large scale “downsizing” on average income earners. The top dogs are ahead of the game because they can of course buy whatever machines their money can acquire; the menial workers aren’t necessarily at risk here because their jobs are often so negligible that no one pays them any attention anyway. But what about the class of persons stuck in between? The lawyers, doctors and thousands of regular corporate personnel whose jobs can and would in fact be taken over by computers in this age of automation?

According to a 2017 McKinsey report, half of today’s regular work activities could be automated by 2055. The report was quick to point out however that this could happen up to 20 years earlier or later than 2055, depending on various factors and in addition to the prevailing economic conditions.

Let’s break this down; 400-700 million jobs are at risk of being automated and flushed out. This is not necessarily happening some time in the future, it’s already happening in some sectors. Here’s some stats: between the years 1963 and 2005, the steel industry in the US lost about 400,000 of its workers because a whopping 75 percent of its work force was reduced due to the advent of an automated system called the minimill, which produced steel products from recycled scrap metal more efficiently than human labourers. This reduction in workforce as far as I know has neither affected the output nor the profits of the industry. However, it definitely left an impressive number of people out of work and struggling over the years; many of them less able to successfully fit into the new world created by the machines.

Electronics factory workers in Cikarang, Indonesia. Credit: ILO/Asrian Mirza.

The World Bank for one is being painfully vague with these consequences. Its position as gleaned from their recent “The Changing Nature of Work” report, is that automation is inevitable, a sort of evolution that would be the best thing for humankind. The argument is that advancement of this nature will eventually lead to a generally improved standard of living because, like the industrial evolution, human beings will always adapt to survive. Now the problem with this argument as laid down in this report isn’t that it is wholly untrue, but that its incomplete.

The idea that automation is inevitable and should be embraced by all should be considered side by side with the truth that this “evolution” would also ensure that the corporations already “embracing” the new era would no longer have to worry about such things as worker’s welfare or unions. And the issue of improved standard of living as laid down by the World Bank in this report when married with the consequential cuts in salaries and loss of jobs ought to raise the question: just whose standards of living is expected to be improved in this “evolution” anyway? The beneficiaries don’t seem to be the people laid off from their jobs do they?

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This is probably a moot point but I’ll state it anyway. Look around you, we are already producing more than we can consume. There is absolutely no reason to believe that automation equals innovation because when examined critically, it is easy to see that the main reason automation is being touted is that it would mean less salaries and ultimately more profits for the corporations supporting it. As if to make my point for me, Andrew F. Puzder, a former US labor secretary nominee and former chief executive of CKE Restaurants, while speaking on automation extolled the virtues of robot employees over the human kind: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.” Case closed.

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Now the World Bank concedes that automation will indeed take many regular jobs away from humans. However, while, it goes on to argue that the new system would also create jobs, it fails to specify whether or not better jobs would in fact be created by automation. The report was also conveniently silent on the question of the sufficiency of these newly created jobs when compared to the estimated high level of unemployment created by downsizing amongst the middle class. Thus, the future that we might be looking at could be summed up by the option of either working at low quality jobs or being out of work entirely. This distinction is important, especially in light of the gig economy because while the gig system may offer a veneer of freedom and flexibility, it would also leave workers in perpetual uncertainty and financial instability.

Just in case you were wondering, I find the manner in which the apex bank dismisses the prospect of job losses very upsetting. According to the World Bank report, to be able to enjoy these much acclaimed new jobs, people would have to be trained and retrained to adapt to the future of work. And again I wonder, what becomes of those who can’t afford these retraining exercises? The report makes it all sound awesome that people would now have to work and unlearn most of what they learnt about their jobs all through their lives only to be able to still make a living. In reality, what this ushers in is a life of continuous uncertainty marked by inability to hold jobs and earn a steady income; the gig economy 2.0. 

It wouldn’t be so bad if retraining and new learnings could be achieved seamlessly, but given governments and corporations have habitually and historically shown themselves to be woefully inadequate at such things, the outlook looks grim. One such example are the ridesharing companies. Uber for instance have tried to wiggle away from paying minimum wages. Their solution? Self-driving cars. Uber has in fact already dedicated over one billion dollars towards developing their self-driving cars to replace the over three million drivers that they employ worldwide.

Grab bike driver picking up passenger. Grab is a technology company that offers wide range of ride-hailing and logistics services through its app in Southeast. Credit: Afif Kusuma.

In addition, the education system hasn’t changed much. While the internet has made continuous learning possible, this is far from available to everyone. The middle-aged generation and the economically disadvantaged who were not trained in such technologies or who cannot afford internet access are therefore perpetually condemned to remain in such disadvantage.

The issue here, as in most cases, lies in the fact that the people making these predictions and policies are people least likely to be affected by the coming automation. In addition, they are often funded by economies and corporations who are mostly pro automation. It is little wonder then that their position can be summed up as “hey, we have survived automation before and we can survive it again. Sure, you will lose some jobs but that’s progress right?”. Ummm…no it’s not.

This kind of response brings to mind the response of climate deniers in the nascent years of the climate crisis; “Yes, the earth is warming, but we will be fine”. If humankind has learnt any lessons from the climate crisis, it is that it is better to make small decisions and policies over a long period of time rather than the fire brigade approach that we now have towards the issue If we are to have a fulfilling future for everyone, it is time that we started guarding against or at the very least providing viable alternatives to combat the adverse effects of the take over by automation.

Dancing around the issue in the ways of these capitalist corporations really isn’t going to cut it for us little guys. 

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Feature image by Franck V via Unsplash.

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