The USA use to be known as the Great American Job Machine. Year after year, with only brief bumps during recessions, the US economy churned out millions of jobs, keeping up with rapid population growth (the population more than doubled since it won World War II), and sustaining high employment levels and upward socioeconomic mobility. Although envied by much of the world, this reputation was somewhat exaggerated — some other countries actually had even higher employment, and the unemployment “norm” tended to edge upwards over the years. But even so, the ability of a combination of private and public employment contributed to the concept of American Exceptionalism that saw the USA as unusually blessed when it came to putting folks to work.
That really started to slip in the Bush II years, when job growth even during the Great Economic Bubble of the Bush 2 era was rather sluggish as the nation increasingly became a services and finances economy configured to direct most of the economic growth to the top 1% — exposing the financiers are fundamentally profit creators not job creators ( click here ). Since the beginning of the Great Recession the USA has slid further down in employment levels than any other prosperous democracy, leaving it in the lower tier of western nations when it comes to job numbers and generation, and with many long term unemployed. And the USA now has a highly stratified class society ( click here).
There is a lot of the usual, conventional debate between libertarians at one end to progressives on the other about what to do about this. But perhaps under appreciated — especially by conservatives — is that the forces of science and technology that have created the modern industrial-consumer world seems at long last to be doing what it has long augured. To displace most people from jobs that can, and increasingly will, be filled by intelligent machines able to perform tasks at less cost and with higher quality and safety than can we big brained apes.
So far we have been winning the dance with technology, until the turn of the century the rise of automation did not eliminate jobs to the degree that major portion of populations were unable to get jobs. But as I (with co-author Earl Cox in Beyond Humanity) and others have been pointing out, that happy circumstance has worked only as long as the machines are so inept and especially dumb enough that there are lots of things that only Homo sapiens can do. But while the later are not getting brighter, the machines are fast getting so smart and sophisticated that they threaten to cut ever deeper into the job market.
Automation has long been good at doing things that do not require much skill and are repetitive. Factories have long been packed with such labor saving machines. Even ye old grain mills powered by wind and water were doing that. For decades after Henry Ford developed large scale assembly lines the line workers were essentially repetitive robots, doing the same simple thing again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and a”. all shift long (it was because such work was so mind numbing that laborers would quickly quit that was the real reason Ford doubled wages). It was a no-brainer to replace the robo-humans with outright robots. Yet there are still hundreds of millions of low wage assembly jobs out there that give folks at least some income to get along on. Such as the countless millions count on sweatshop textile jobs, But word is that robots are beginning to sew clothing with greater skill and even less cost. How about athletic shoes as sweatshop work? They can now be created by 3-D printers (click here). What sweatshop workers can do so can robots. And with a lot less tribulation for the corporations. Apple would love to replace all the abused Chinese workers it is catching flack for with robots that do the job at least as good and at less expense. Robots that no one cares whether they are taken advantage of or not.
We are all hearing about how American manufacturing is enjoying something of a revival, what with managers bring back production to the states as wages rise in other lands along with long distance transportation costs. But the new high productivity factories are not packed with people putting together stuff. As the Atlantic article “Making It in America” observes, the plants are eerily empty of human beings ( click here ). They are called “lights out factories” in that they are less brightly lit than plants in which people need enough lumens to see what they are doing. Nor do factory wages tend to be as high as they were.
Take the robo-cars we have been promised since the New York World’s Fair of 1939. The original idea was that roads would be rigged to guide cars with magnetic stripes and the like, but that would be too expensive and not safe enough. Not that people driving cars is a at all a good thing, being prone to errors and diversions we kill 30,000 in the USA and 1.2 million globally each year — it’s a road war out there. With the advent of small computers the paradigm shifted to making the vehicles themselves smart enough the drive themselves on any ordinary road at any legal speed at any time and in any drivable weather. And with greater safety than can be achieved by phone texting people.
As late as the late 1980s so little progress had been made with robovehicles — university built machines could barely navigate college pathways and avoid coeds, it was pathetic — that skeptics started citing the failure as further evidence of digital over promising. But by the 1990s vehicles were doing pretty well on test roads, and a Carnegie Mellon robocar drove itself across the nation on interstates. Progress was still incremental until DARPA held a contest in the last decade in which vehicles were required to navigate many miles over backroads to a common destination. The first year no robovehicle made it. The second year so many of the driverless carriage aced the contest that DARPA moved onto a much more rigorous urban road contest that required the vehicles to not hit other moving items. That went so well the first year that they did not bother repeating it.
Google has digitally surveyed all the nation’s roads. Originally thought to be the purpose of Google Maps, that was not the real reason. Google has developed robotic cars that can and do drive themselves on regular roads without running into things or people. Aside from the onboard sensors and GPS, the smart cars use the Google maps to know the detail of every road — including the speed limits.
Here is the thing. Aside from being fantastically unsafe, the people driven car system we now have is fantastically inefficient. The typical privately owned automobile does nothing 95% of the time, which is why parking is such a hassle. It is also a massive cost for the car owner, and there is the hassle of keeping the vehicle running. Part of the cost is insurance, which is as high as it is because accident prone humans are driving the things.
The marketing plan is to get most folks to stop owning cars. Instead, when ready to go somewhere use your cell phone to order a robocar, which will show up in a few minutes. Tell it your destination and off you go. Take a nap on the way if you like. When finished off it goes to serve another customer. Far greater safety, far less total expense, much less bother, and residential streets freed from endless rows of parked cars. Also reduced will be traffic congestion, much of which occurs when cars get too packed together for klutzy Homo sapiens drivers to maintain speed. The cross communicating robotic carriages will not be so skittish about keeping the highway moving during rush hour. There is evidence that the newest generation of adults is already losing interest in the automobile as the great American status symbol, they being more ecoconscious, urbanized and enthralled with digital tech than horsepower and body styling.
So what is the problem? Specifically job-wise? Think about it. What is a basic way for those without much in the way of skills or education to earn enough money to at least get along? Like the Ignatowski character in the sitcom Taxi, drive a cab. But when the robocars take over hacking will go the way of nonavian dinosaurs. Who will want to ride in a car driven by some human being when the robocars are so much safer. And no rental company — or their insurers — will risk placing customers in people driven vehicles. Also eliminated is the risk of cabdrivers being robbed or worse. If and when robocars arrive in a big way there goes about a quarter million American jobs.
(Less clear is what will happen to automobile production. The number of vehicles in existence at any moment should decline sharply, but those that exist will be used nearly 24/7/365 so they will have to be rapidly replaced. By robofactory workers of course.)
Lots of jobs are so dangerous that they are begging to go robotic. Mining, assembling power line and communication towers, firefighting, soldiers — you get the drift.
Another great digital job killer is the Internet/Web. Once upon a time there were myriads of little mom and pop stores selling multitudes of items that were hard to get otherwise. Nowadays we can all get the same stuff cheaper via computer. So far the number of jobs lost has outpaced those created, and it is only likely to get worse as smart machines increasingly take on the jobs (such as warehouse item sorting and retrieval) so far created by the Internet shopping system.
Once upon a time papers, magazines, books, broadcast radio and TV, records used to provide jobs and incomes, but internet and web alternatives that few can make a living from are making it hard to get along as a journalist, author or illustrator. The idea that many can make good income by selling stuff over the digital network is a joke for most — we can’t make a living by selling each other T-shirts and nicknacks.
Cashiers are being displaced by self check out lanes.
There will always be a need for teachers, right? It is becoming understood that one of the worst ways to teach folks is with eye glazing lectures — students learn better from computers that are likely going to do most of the jobs anyway.
IBM’s Watson that proved mere humans can win Jeopardy only if computers are not allowed to play is beginning to displace skilled humans in medicine and other fields of expertise. So far health care has been one of the best job creators. But if and when medicine really gets good folks will become so normally healthy that they will not require as much care, much of which will be provided by machines configured to be human friendly. One way or another lots of jobs at all skill levels are being absorbed by cyber intelligences.
Some people jobs will remain. It is hard to see how robots can run a horse riding farm. Or walk urban folk’s pets. People will still want to hang human created art on their walls. Teaching and leading exercise workouts, self defense course, yoga and the like will require folks. There’s professional sports. Only humans can legally arrest and try alleged ne’er-do-wells. There will always have to be at least some people at security checkpoints to make final decisions. Each factory will have to have a few human managers. I suspect that the notion that robots will replace homeworkers is exaggerated — to enter and clean up a house without breaking stuff and so on is a complicated task that requires human level cognition or something close to it. So if robots are so advanced to clean houses as well as humans they will be too expensive for most to afford, and the robots will then be so advanced that they will be getting ready to replace us anyway. There will still be jobs until that happens, but not enough to go around.
Obviously if cyber intelligence and physical performance develops to the degree that it matches and exceeds that of humans then there will not be jobs left for humans to do. So the still common notion that there will always be plenty of jobs for anyone who wants one, as cybertechnology gets ever closer to human abilities, is pathetically naive. Something has got to give here.
Adam Smith did a fair job of describing how capitalism would work in the then coming era when not particularly bright machines were able to help mass manufacture stuff and later crunch through lots of data, but not good enough in either intelligence or physical flexibility to absorb most jobs including the new ones happily created by industrialization. This is the theory upon which classic capitalist ideology and libertarianism is founded — capitalists are job creators because making profits happens to produce more people jobs than it eliminates via eradication of out dated products and services, increasing worker productivity, and automation over time. With plenty of jobs around, all but a few have the income to spend that generates still more jobs in a virtuous economic upward spiral. Problem is that we live in an age of rapid all encompassing change when theories that worked great for a couple of centuries are vulnerable to becoming obsolete as technology progresses to levels not comprehended by 18th century thinkers. Smithian capitalism cannot provide jobs for all human workers when cyber machines are so smart and adept that they are absorbing most jobs including the new ones that post-industrialization creates. Potential disaster looms because if jobs becoming increasingly scarce, it will become increasingly difficult for a growing portion of the population to garner the income they have to spend to fund jobs for others, creating a dysfunctional economic downward spiral in which even the robots are left without jobs. At least some of the 1% will do OK in this techno dystopia, but most of the rest will be in serious trouble. And this could happen very rapidly as information processing power continues to rise with Moore’s Law, that has been operative since WW II. Classic capitalism requiring mass human labor is likely to be replaced as fast or faster as it had overturned the pre-industrial era. The shift may already be underway, so hold onto your hats.
The Luddite prognosis that machine will replace man is probably correct. The Luddite solution of tightly controlling the advance and use of cybertech is impractical. We live in a Darwinian world in which the nations and companies are under intense pressure to gain the advantage with new technologies. Stopping the march of technology would require a global police state. Nor do libertarians, with their let capitalism do what ever its does and let all fend for themselves as best they can attitude, have a solution.
The libertarian theory developed in the 19th and 20th centuries is clueless when it comes to proposing how 21st century “job creators” will have no fiscal choice but to create immense number of jobs for machines rather than people when the cost efficient machines themselves are increasingly cared for by other cost efficient machines. In view of what is coming down the pike, the Tea Partiers and Republican candidates calling for giving yet more breaks to the “job creators” comes across as anachronistic — all the more so when the TPers dress up in those old timey tri-corner hats in vogue back when Adam Smith was hot.
Not that the Democrats are addressing the issue either. The new era is likely to require a more collective socioeconomic contract than Adam Smith could imagine.