This was once the face of the Robot Apocalypse.
A terrifying unified metal organism crushing humanity under its robotic heel, exterminating the humans who once gave it life and whose robotic perfection could no longer tolerate our imperfect nature. We as humans have grown to fear this meme more than nearly any other; the machine finding humanity’s flaws a reason to remove us from the Earth. Okay, perhaps that was a fictional account of the robot apocalypse designed to play on our fears of the unknown, robots, and the ever-encroaching wave of technology swallowing up our lives.
But the robot apocalypse may look more like this: Robots coming to work, first in our factories and then later in our offices, programmed with capabilities which allow them to displace the less qualified workers engaged in tasks that can be replicated with algorithmic procedures and programming. (That may be more jobs than we are willing to admit.)
Illustration by Roberto Parada
I predicted the future of work and the economically debilitating effects of robots, automation, and the replacement of the workforce with machines on the populace in previous articles. In Death to the Labor Class, I postulate the consideration that the culture of America and the world at large may need to re-evaluate how we deal with compensation and the nature of work in the future, as machines put laborers out of the workforce in greater and greater numbers.
I tried to remind people that automation has been taking your jobs for years, you simply still had other choices of work to get and still bring home the bacon. Now I am postulating not only will the potential for automation take your job, it will take it higher and higher along the social-economic food chain. Once only blue-color workers were affected, now the potential for algorithms can take any job which can be proceduralized and structured based on databases of stored information.
For example, there are already computerized journalists in use today. See: NYTimes: In case you’re wondering a human wrote this article. A market for such technology will continue to grow as the databases they draw from become more intelligent and sophisticated. Will they replace real journalists? For some types of articles the answer is assuredly, yes.
See: Death to the Labor Class: http://storify.com/ebonstorm/may-13-2013-monday-s-musing-death-to-the-labor-cla.
How the Tesla Model S is Made — Behind The Scenes
A sample of how robotics are slowly changing manufacturing from Wired Magazine and the Tesla Automotive company
The opinion of the masses: So what?
The comments I received primarily indicated those jobs needed to be replaced since robots COULD do them, they should. Mostly this would affect people with less education, blue-color workers and the disdain of the white-color workers was palpable because they thought their jobs would be unaffected by technical automation of any kind.
I mentioned the idea of algorithms or procedural decision-making based on experience. This is how experienced doctors, lawyers and other professionals decide on courses of action. What if you could write a program or algorithm to do the same thing? The program would learn from decisions made in the past and predict what possible outcomes and their potential chances for success. This could mean an entirely new class of workers, including middle managers could find themselves unemployed as intelligent agents make the same decisions they did without preferential treatment, emotional attachments, or favoritism to muddy the economic water.
Engineer Christopher Steiner has an interview in the European Magazine discussing the idea that white-color jobs that are low in innovation are indeed next on the list of people made unemployed by technology. And there are a lot more jobs at stake than in the manufacturing industry.
Here is a telling quotation from the article. It is definitely worth your time to read. The effects are worldwide and potentially socially catastrophic:
“The European: We tend to think about unskilled labor as the most precarious form of labor – machines could easily do it. Yet one of the arguments you make is that algorithms threaten many mid-level, white collar jobs…
Steiner: Being an expert in a field, having worked for fifteen years in that field, usually means that you have accumulated enough expertise, seen enough cases, read enough studies, dealt with enough clients, that you develop your own pattern recognition system within your brain. In medicine, experienced doctors are valuable because they have seen and treated many patients and diseases. Experienced lawyers know very well what information they need to pursue litigation, where to find that information, and so forth. But algorithms are very well suited for pattern recognition, much more than humans. If you can feed algorithms with data about a patient’s symptoms or about a legal case, I can’t see how that would not take away many of our jobs.”