Man and His Machines

The automation of labour poses a unique opportunity for businesses. The people? Not so much.

Living in the early 21st century has to be a privilege that I’m not sure most of us deserve. The pace at which technology has moved over the last two decades is uncanny and quite exciting. Smartphones. Holograms. Space Exploration.Driverless cars.  Virtuality Reality! Memes!!!

The ability for advancements in digital technology has made our world closer in ways we could never have imagined, nor in a way we were honestly ready for. But beyond the convenient trinkets that allow us to Skype our pen-pals across three different time zones is a world of very real consequences.

This is a world of giant corporations, worth billions of dollars, orchestrating the largest movement of product in human history.  International trade and its role players is in a state of complexity that is functionless without the technologies that continue to drive innovation and progress in manufacturing, shipping, communications etc. Similar to the inventions that spurred the last three Industrial Revolutions, the advancement of tools has forced many to evolve or perish, often to the better of the marketplace and the world.

It’s hard to imagine that the miraculous leap that was Chinese growth in the last two decades is possible in any way without the developments that made the manufacturing and development of consumer products so transferable. And yet, in the conversation of automating that very work, it is the futures of those hoping to follow in China’s footsteps that are most in jeopardy.

They Took Our Jobs

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The idea of equipping machines with the ability to think for themselves has been the stuff of nightmares for as long as there’s been science fiction. But the reality of these thinking machines is far less menacing than we have often represented. When thinking about robots my mind often travels back to the classic scene of man discovering his tools in 2001: A Space Odessy. That image of our ancestors discovering the potential hosted in a single bone, and that idea spiralling forward until we reach the advancement of space travel, is the story of humanity. A story of discovery aided by technology.

But the nature of our tools has not changed. No matter the invention, it hosts both great good and great harm in its potential impact on our way of life. Every great invention has essentially disrupted the status quo but eventually become part of the variety of tools used to advance humanity as a species. That is, at the end of the day, the purpose of a tool. To facilitate our work.

Unfortunately, there is much hesitation towards what many might deem as humanities greatest, and possibly last,  feat of invention. This is the concept of self-operating, and functioning machines. A machine that is much more than just a tool for work. A machine that is the worker.

This has various practical and philosophical implications. Firstly, the notion of work has become the central tenant of human life. Our entire society is based around the concept that, upon reaching maturity, the goal of any individual is to find some form of work that can provide a means to support them and their loved ones. Only in recent decades has the conversation on work become more focused on activities that achieve some form of desire or fulfilment and happiness in one’s work. This development changed the way businesses approached industry at the end of the 20th century, as employees sought to gain more from their work than monetary compensation.

Resultantly, specialisation has become the word-of-the-day in the modern work market. The new industries born out of the digital revolution have born new employers who emphasise critical thinking skills and innovation in a landscape that was previously dominated by the constant need for employees to fit into a mould of productivity.

However, the work that is available to many at the lower ends of the world’s wealth distribution can still be described as monotonous chores aimed primarily at providing people with means to support themselves financially. Furthermore, even with the massive uptake in tech firms hiring a large swathe of the job market, most jobs are still defined by the need to get the utmost output from staff. This indicates that if automation of work were to happen on a mass scale, the greatest question would be what the nature of work for those the machines replace would be.

Secondly, the progress made in automation in recent years has extended the scope of potential jobs that could be replaced by some form of tech to encompass a lot more than most had expected. Factory work has become the staple example people leap to when discussing the danger of automation. The image of robotic arms lurching over production lines in factories around the world is one many are familiar with, and has been the image of automation since the first industrial revolution. But the robots have now left the assembly line and are ready to join us in the office, and it’s hard to see how we could compete.

The Great Temptation

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What starts out as a novelty robot hotel in Japan, can quickly become an industry standard in cutting costs.

With the growth of our digital world, we have all become aware of the introduction of products that service needs we weren’t aware we had up until now. This has lead to the success of brands such as Alibaba and Amazon in logistics and retail, Online and Cellular banking alternatives such as PaypalRakuten in Japan and Vodacom’s M-Pesa in Africa, and transport and rental services such as Uber and their Chinese counterparts Didi Chuxing. 

These companies and their products have opened global consumers to a world of convenience and opportunity that wasn’t really recognisable before. However, the temptation to automate many of the services offered by these firms would create a double-whammy for the international labour market.

Previously, when one of these disruptive tech companies would appear on the scene many of their detractors would indicate that their services would force many out of a job. This was always defended by the argument that these companies were simply the natural evolution of the field and that new jobs that were previously not possible would be created in the space to replace the newly-outdated ones.

However, in the case of simply handing over the jobs of people to highly-functioning computers, the space for new jobs to be created from the innovation is limited. Once the machines have become cheaper to produce, purchase, and maintain than their human counterparts their use starts to become an eventuality rather than a choice, as has been shown by Uber’s push for self-driving cars and what this might implicate for their current drivers.

Just Let The Computer Do It…

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Considering the above, we now see that the opportunities for automation are shrouded by some pretty sizeable clouds of threats to the global economy. And this is without considering the various ways that automation may play out.

When it comes to the digital landscape there is no one front of activity. A variety of companies compete in the tech space in a wide range of ways, starting at your strictly online services centred around building the internet into humanity’s second reality such as Facebook and Google, to the likes of Samsung and Apple who still focus on selling physical products like TV’s and phones, and your hybrids like the previously mentioned Amazon. 

So it goes without saying that if Facebook, who commands one of the largest customer bases in the world and has access to billions of people on a day-to-day basis, decides to introduce a service through their apps that undercuts a service offered in the real world, the impact could be monumental. Such is the heft of the company, and its industry. There only needs to be movement in one of these tech spaces to ensure mass-disruption. Such is the case of Amazon’s success and a failing retail industry.

But here’s the catch. Facebook (or Amazon) don’t even have to do this intentionally for it to happen.

The minds over at Silicon Valley are constantly searching for a new way to innovate current systems, and hopefully, make a billion dollars while doing it. And like any other gold rush ever, the search for the next big thing in tech rarely stops to consider the negative consequences these new ideas may have on the world.

This means the world is constantly being pushed towards adopting new apps, widgets, and thingamajigs that “revolutionise”  how your pizza gets made and delivered, without noticing that at least five people have been put out of work before you take the first bite.

We don’t only have to live in great fear that the next wonky little thing from Boston Dynamics will replace “Big George” down at the factory, but also fear that you could soon finalise the accounts for this financial year, get banking and legal advice, go grocery shopping and drop your daughter off at school without leaving the couch or seeing a human face. Most of which is already possible.

A world divided by Apps ( And wealth…obviously)

Above all else, it seems that automation will leave its biggest mark on the future and structure of our globalised world. As indicated above, the nature of work will need to change in order to keep up with the introduction of robots and computers that can do everything else. This means that education needs to be shifted towards specialised fields of study that leave the youth of the future equipped with the necessary skills needed to survive in this market. There are two problems with that.

Firstly, this says nothing about what might happen to the people who already inhabit the labour market, for whom, education on new skills and knowledge is too late. Secondly, and most importantly, this logic operates under the assumption that governments have the capacity to offer such education. And unfortunately for what is most likely the majority of this planet, that is not always the case.

The introduction of automation, and the subsequent gap between governments’ capabilities to skill their people might lead to the reaffirming of global wealth inequalities. This, in plain language, is a bad thing.

Not only will this contribute to the growing divide between the world’s wealthy and its poor, but it creates hotbeds for potential conflict in places where there is no opportunity to escape poverty and also a presence of great wealth. This much is true for both developing and developed nations.

More than a quick fix

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The recent rise of populism in Europe and around the world is often attested to two factors, the inability for economies to grow following the financial crisis of 2008 in spite of the demands placed on citizens to further globalisation attempts, and the ensuing chaos birthed from instability in the Middle-East and the subsequent refugee crisis. If the trend of automation driving people from work is not curtailed this will lead to the growing case of people voting in leaders with very simplistic solutions to increasingly complex problems. And automation is such a complex problem.

Beyond what irreparable things could be done under such people, this will most likely change the nature of international trade. With growing isolationism, nations will resort to cutting themselves off from global markets and looking to their robotic tools to replace any shortfalls in labour. But this doesn’t necessarily result in benefits for low-income local citizens.

Take the example being set by United States President Donald Trump. When Trump chose to change regulations on coal production in the US it was with the aim of returning jobs to a dying coal mining industry. However, many noted that a consequence of the advancements made in mining since the hey-days of American coal, and the growing prevalence and competition of renewable energy, was that many of these mines no longer needed or could afford human labour. Hence, very few miners would see these jobs return.

Furthermore, it is the hopes of Mr Trump to stop what he claims is the exodus of American jobs to China, mostly in manufacturing. But it is debatable, under the assumption that Mr Trump is correct in his assessment (Not really), whether in the circumstances that manufacturing jobs return to the US they will be in the manner that employs millions of American workers. What is more likely to happen is Silicon Valley will birth a new species of manufacturing tech solutions that make everyone but a few specialists in management redundant.

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So What Now?

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This proves that when the issue of automation is discussed it cannot be in the simple terms we often adopt for every other conversation. In order for nations to effectively adapt to the new wave of technology hoping to displace human input, there needs to be substantial cooperation in the international community.

Automation isn’t going to happen as quickly as some developers would like it too. But neither is it going to take as long as most others think it should. So rather than being caught off guard, the world should prepare. As of late, there have been suggestions from all walks of life about what would be best. Bill Gates suggests that a tax be placed on all robotic workers in order to finance the livelihoods of the individuals they replace.

There is also a growing discussion on a universal living wage that would offer a basic form of income to all citizens. This tactic is currently being trailed in Ontario, Canada and seems to be gaining ground as the chief response to an automated world.

I am also almost certain that most of the discussions held at the World Economic Forum in coming years will focus on creating global consensus on a solution that sees the developed and developing world working together to curb economic instability. Cause this problem will stretch beyond borders.

For developing nations, the hopes of following in China’s footsteps and launching millions of people out of poverty with the aid of globalisation’s manufacturing demand is in great jeopardy if that demand can be met in the developed world with robotic replacements.

For developed nations, there is a great paradox of becoming more isolationist to fend off the spilling-over of nearby conflicts and poverty, and causing more conflict and poverty spill-overs by inadvertently removing the capacity for poorer governments to create jobs in industry and attract investment.

Therefore, the question that must truly be asked by global powers is not what robots can or should do, but rather, what is the new role of human labour in an automated world?

There really is so much you can cover about this topic and it is my hope that I can cover more of the fringe technicalities as time goes on. For now, it is important to recognise that automation, and all that it brings with it, is a reality of both the future and present. I have this innate feeling that if countries are not able to adapt to this issue it will result in millions (potentially billions) being left behind by a new technological wave. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

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