Fear of Automation

These days I hear a lot about how Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning (AI / ML) is going to take all of our jobs and then kill us, Terminator-style.  I suppose this could happen, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.  If you want a good, but technical, view of these things, I recommend Rodney Brook’s blog.  Of course, he is the founder of iRobot, so he may just be trying to sell us Killer Robots.

After getting past the fear of fighting for our lives against Killer Robots, there is the real issue of automation and jobs.  I was having this discussion with a colleague (who also works in AI / ML) and my thinking is that if you have a job that can be replaced by automation, then you have a pretty crappy job.  Ok, it is easy to say that when it isn’t *your* job being automated away, but that is pretty much the hard truth.  We can stop using bulldozers and give lots of people jobs using shovels, but does anyone think this is a good idea?

There was a time when nearly everyone worked in agriculture.  Today a small fraction of us do.  This is because of automation.  It was a tough road for farmers who got displaced, but the good news is we get to live in the sort of world we do today.  Some may have a nostalgic view of those older, simpler days, but do you really want to live a 1700s existence, no matter how pastoral?

I will go one further and say the alternative to automation (at least in our society) is slavery.  In the US in the 1860s a huge disagreement arose on whether or not to automate farming with machinery or to keep the existing system based of human labor.  Automation was always going to win, but the real issue was what to do with the displaced labor.  Some of these issues are still being worked out, especially in the part of the country that resisted agricultural automation.

In more recent times, US manufacturing decided to go with low-cost labor (from overseas) rather than automate.  I don’t think it is too late to pick up the automation torch, though.  It may, in fact, be easier, since all of the jobs have already gone away from ‘outsourcing’.  At this point we won’t be displacing our own workers.

I don’t speak from the sidelines here.  As a tech worker, my job is essentially to automate away my current job.  I have always been able to move on to the next one, at least so far.  I do wonder why the people doing the automating don’t participate in the gains more.  Turns out lots of people in my field are automating things and not allowing the gains to be passed up to the larger organization.  An interesting new twist to automating the workplace has emerged:

A programmer automated their data-entry job. Now the question is whether to tell their employer.

Maybe that is at least part of the answer.  Somehow keep some of the gains to yourself.  Of course, if workers were part owners of the enterprise (as they were in most earlier tech start-ups, via stock options) this might not be such a problem.

Again, I am biased.  I work in the automation business and computer technology has displaced perhaps as many people as agricultural automation.  But it has given much back, basically by freeing up the time people took (or would have taken) to do all of these chores.  Maybe computer technology is different, but I don’t think it is.  I think what was different was the way the displaced labor was absorbed.  We will see what happens as this next wave of automation comes through.  I hope it goes as well as the last one, and I certainly hope it doesn’t go as badly as the one before it.