Home CultureArticles & Essays Automation Is Already Here, So What Are We Doing About The Post-Work World?

Automation Is Already Here, So What Are We Doing About The Post-Work World?

by Jelte Ten Holt
Automation is Already Here

Left, right or middle, this whole thing feels like shared disinterest. We will all feel it within 10 years.  Are politicians ignoring future automation?

Why isn’t anyone talking about automation and the post-work world?

Some early cyberpunk predictions feel as distant as their publication date; as those years have come (and gone), other predictions have begun to feel horribly prescient. Sure, we aren’t all cyborgs, can’t plug our brains into alternate realities and don’t live in an eternal night. Yet other ideas – like global corporations more powerful than nations, technologically provoked social upheaval and an alienated lower class – have arrived.

What’s more, the future looks to be even more cyberpunk. In his book, 21 lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari has this to say about the future of AI-provoked disruption:  

Humans have two types of abilities – physical and cognitive. In the past, machines competed with humans mainly in raw physical abilities, while humans retained an immense edge over machines in cognition. Hence as manual jobs… were automated, new service jobs emerged that required… cognitive skills… However, AI is now beginning to outperform humans in more and more of these skills, including in the understanding of human emotions.

The result – AI is taking over white-collar jobs in accounting, driving, medicine and even writing.  

And that’s not even the worst of it. While the world has advanced with regard to AI, politics have not. According to Claire Miller of the New York Times, “[n]o candidate talked much about automation on the campaign trail. Technology is not as convenient a villain as China or Mexico, there is no clear way to stop it, and many of the technology companies are in the United States and benefit the country in many ways.

Not much has changed since then. Despite calls over the last two years to make AI a priority, President Trump has only just signed an executive order related to AI.  Being light on details and providing no funding, the order’s focus is not the intrusion of AI into the workplace, but the US response to China’s push into AI.

That response, to be fair, is important.  Whoever wins the AI race will have a distinct advantage, and the US doesn’t want to be left behind.  What’s more, centrally-organized states like China might have an advantage in this field. After all, the effectiveness of AI depends on the data sets they’re trained on. The bigger and better the data set, the more competent the AI.  As China is centralized and not well known for respecting privacy, building such data sets will be easier there.

Yes, government should promote AI interests. But what about our interests? Even if they don’t really care, self-preservation should make politicians pay more attention. People’s dissatisfaction has made them vote for parties and politicians on the extremes of the left and the right. That’s led to a hollowing out of the middle in politics and made it far harder for the wings of government to compromise (and govern).

Imagine what will happen if the middle class joins blue collar workers in feeling sidelined and, dissatisfied with “American dream.” Extremist politics will become the new norm, and the growing belief that democracy doesn’t work will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

To avoid succumbing to military coups or the installing of strong men, politicians must realize the dangers of the 21st century and preempt the impact of disruptive technologies by taking action.

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Jobs and Workers

This is how Yuval Noah Harari imagines that that should happen: “[E]conomic entrepreneurship will have to be accompanied by a revolution in education and psychology… new jobs… will probably demand high levels of expertise and as AI continues to improve, human employees will need to repeatedly learn new skills and change their profession.

To achieve this, we need not only more funding, but a shift in policy. Currently, politicians focus on keeping coal mines open and protecting jobs from disruption. But this focus creates two problems: one, the government is diverting resources from 21st century industries and investing them in outdated 20th century ones; two, people will keep doings things AI can do better. The result? Progress slows and countries which are willing to let old industries die will pull ahead.

A better idea is to follow the Scandinavian model of protecting workers instead of jobs. In Sweden, for example:

  • Healthcare isn’t tied to your employer. So, if you lose your job you don’t lose your coverage.
  • The state supplies generous unemployment benefits for those who lose their jobs.
  • Companies who retrench workers pay into a program to retrain them.

In this way, these governments aim to protect workers from the effects of automation. Does that sound socialist? Sure. Does it mean a higher tax rate? You bet. They have a tax rate of up to 60% to pay to help jobless people and other vulnerable groups (which amounts to 27% of economic output). Does it work? Let’s look at some numbers:  

  1. Sweden certainly has more income equality. According to the World Bank, Their Gini coefficient is 29.2, while that of the US sits at 41.5. (A Gini coefficient of ‘0’ means total income equality while a score of ‘100’ means one person takes all). But then, when you have significant wealth distribution that’s not strange.
  2. More interesting, Sweden score higher on governmental stability. According to the World Bank political stability index, Sweden comes in at 34th with a score of 0.98 while the USA comes in at 75th, with a score of 0.3. (The scale runs from 1.65 (Monaco) to -2.96 (Yemen)).
  3. Most telling is their views on the future. Peter S. Goodman from The New York reports, “Eighty percent of Swedes express positive views about robots and artificial intelligence… By contrast… 72 percent of Americans were ‘worried’ about a future in which robots and computers substitute for humans.” (Surveys linked in article)

Will this be enough?

That’s hard to know. Though machines have been replacing manual jobs for centuries, their move into cognitive territory is new. Thus, we can’t predict how rapidly jobs will be destroyed, if enough jobs will be created to replace them, or if workers can be retrained fast enough to keep up.

What’s more, automation is hardly the only disruptive technology. Take the way social media and new media are reshaping society. Instead of people consuming the same news, many now look for sources which fit their views. As each source has its own interpretation of the facts (and sometimes its own facts) this had made debate – a cornerstone of democracy – harder. Then there’s the way they have allowed people to bypass information gatekeepers like mainstream media and big parties. This permits fringe movements and insurgent politicians to speak directly to the people. As a result, the political landscape has splintered (even in Sweden).

Not that this is all bad. After all, the “homogeneous nation state,” where everyone wants the same thing, is an artificial construct (and not a very old one, at that). But it is disruptive. What’s more, it’s all happening at the same time and we’re getting hit again and again. As a result, we’re like punch-drunk boxers, flailing around to get some breathing space.

Could this be why politicians focus on the wrong problems? Maybe because we’re all pointing our fingers in different direction while screaming at the top of our lungs, the real issues are getting drowned out. And that makes us elect the wrong politicians on the wrong platforms.

But that doesn’t let politicians off the hook. It’s hardly the first time we’ve faced serious upheaval. In the past, politicians pivoted to confront new challenges with new initiatives. Think the New Deal, The Marshall Plan, and the Space Race. There isn’t really a current-day example. The biggest plans have been regarding tax cuts, repealing healthcare and whether to build (or not build) the wall. Those hardly seem up to the task of dealing with disruptive technologies.

If politicians were to instead focus on dealing with technological disruption – say by promoting the Scandinavian model – we’d get some much-needed breathing space. Helping citizens deal with automation might also restore some trust in government. That will be essential when the next punch lands.

The alternative? The politicians keep focusing on ideology and the problems of the past. Gridlock gets worse, and the dystopian predictions of the cyberpunk genre become more accurate. That doesn’t bear thinking about. For though the cyberpunk genre is a great place to visit, you wouldn’t want to live there.

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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