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Published on January 28th, 2019 | by Steve Hanley

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Baby, Baby, Baby, Where Did Our Jobs Go? How Automation Will Outsource Everything To Machines

January 28th, 2019 by  


Automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are the future of manufacturing. Elon Musk and Tesla are hard at work building the “machine that builds the machine,” and while that is exciting news, it clearly portends a future in which machines do more and humans do less.  That has significant implications for the future of work, including the power of workers to affect national and international political decisions.

Davos and automation

Credit: World Economic Forum

In Davos, Switzerland this week, New York Times reporter Kevin Roose has been strolling the corridors where the wealthy and the truly wealthy are gathering for their annual confab. The fact that the meetings are held on a mountain top where access by mere mortals is interdicted by rifle toting security forces should offer a clue about the attitudes who have gathered there hold about us common folk. As John Fogarty once cautioned, “When they play ‘Hail To The Chief,’ don’tcha know, they point the cannons at you.”


The Automation Explosion

A year ago, Oxfam reported that just 42 people alive today have as much wealth at 3.7 billion of the world’s poorest citizens. A large percentage of those “haves” are slurping down fondue in Davos this week and attending seminars that focus on how they can get even wealthier. The answer, Roose found, is more automation, more artificial intelligence, and more robots.

Roose writes, “I’ve noticed that their answers to questions about automation depend very much on who is listening. In public, many executives wring their hands over the negative consequences that artificial intelligence and automation could have for workers. They take part in panel discussions about building ‘human-centered A.I.’ for the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ — Davos-speak for the corporate adoption of machine learning and other advanced technology — and talk about the need to provide a safety net for people who lose their jobs as a result of automation.

“But in private settings, including meetings with the leaders of the many consulting and technology firms whose pop-up storefronts line the Davos Promenade, these executives tell a different story: They are racing to automate their own work forces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.”

Getting Rid Of 99% Of Workers

“People are looking to achieve very big numbers,” said Mohit Joshi, the president of Infosys, a technology and consulting firm that helps other businesses automate their operations. “Earlier they had incremental, 5 to 10 percent goals in reducing their work force. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’”

If that doesn’t scare the bejezus out of you, it should. UBS predicts that artificial intelligence — much of which will be applied to manufacturing — is a developing industry that will be worth up to $180 billion next year with exponential growth projected for the years ahead.

Kai-Fu Lee is the author of “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order,” which is available for free from Audible. He tells Roose that chief executives were under enormous pressure from shareholders and boards to maximize short-term profits, and that the rapid shift toward automation will be the inevitable result. If you see a glaring disconnect between the need to protect the Earth from a warming climate and the mania for short term profits, go to the head of the class.

Roose reports that the business executives gather in Davos this year see automation as a natural phenomenon they have no control over, like hurricanes or heat waves. “They claim that if they don’t automate jobs as quickly as possible, their competitors will,” he writes.

Playing The Euphemism Game

Business leaders in the US and Europe tend to be circumspect when they speak about automated production, and have come up with a number of buzzwords and phrases that dance around the main point. “Workers aren’t being replaced by machines,” Roose finds, ‘they’re being “released’ from onerous, repetitive tasks. Companies aren’t laying off workers, they’re ‘undergoing digital transformation.'”

Such caution is not found among business leaders in Asia, however. Terry Gou, the head of Foxconn, has said his company plans to replace 80% of its workers with robots in the next 5 to 10 years. Richard Liu, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company JD.com, said at a business conference last year that “I hope my company would be 100% automation someday.”

The Rotten Core Of Neoliberalism

Two things are clear in this discussion. An economic system that values short term profits over the long term sustainability of the Earth is a clear and present danger to humanity. Two, the great economic engine that makes such obscene profits possible is powered by fossil fuels, which are given a free pass when it comes to paying for the harm caused by their use. It’s as though your neighbor gets to pump the effluent from his septic system onto your property and then can force you to clean up his mess.

How to level the playing field? Put a price on carbon. That one factor alone would go a long way toward balancing the economic differences between haves and have nots. Let’s face it. A significant proportion of the astronomical wealth accumulated by those at Davos this week results from them not having to pay all of the costs of production that have made them rich. Instead, they have been allowed to foist some of those expenses off onto the backs of others.

Winners And Losers

The Koch Brothers and their ilk can carry on all they want about government not picking winners and losers and all the other drivel that goes along with the lies they spread about trickle-down economics, but the plain truth is they got where they are by cheating, then buying compliant political leaders to write rules approving and perpetuating their antisocial behavior.

The Davos class likes to pretend that people who lose their jobs to automation can be “re-skilled” so they can find alternate employment. In fact, Amazon says it has “re-skilled” 16,000 warehouse workers so they can work in health care or aircraft maintenance. Amazon has even picked up 95% of the cost of those training programs. While that is laudable, it is not the answer to all jobs lost to automation.

Roose, writes, “A report by the World Economic Forum this month estimated that of the 1.37 million workers projected to be fully displaced by automation in the next decade, only one in four can be profitably reskilled by private-sector programs. The rest, presumably, will need to fend for themselves or rely on government assistance.”

Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, tells Roose, “The choice isn’t between automation and non-automation. It’s between whether you use the technology in a way that creates shared prosperity or more concentration of wealth.” Based on the evidence available so far, anyone who thinks the assemblage of folks at Davos this week are concerned about doing the right thing for humanity instead of further enriching themselves at the expense of others is a fool.

If You’re Poor, It’s Your Own Fault

The mantra among the wealthy is that people are poor because of their own ignorance, laziness, and general lack of gumption. The idea that those that have should lift a finger to assist those not blessed with economic abundance was on full display last week as members of the Trump maladministration went on record saying furloughed government workers should just take out loans to cover their living expenses.

Someday, the people who do the work are going to realize just how badly they have been screwed over by capitalists. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. But while the proletariat is waking up to reality, the single most important challenge facing humanity — a rapidly heating planet — will keep getting pushed off center stage where it belongs. That may push the Earth’s environment over the edge into an abyss from which there will be no turning back. 
 
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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. His motto is, "Life is not measured by how many breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away!" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.



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