In its October 23 issue, The New Yorker ran a magazine cover right out of a science fiction nightmare. Human-like robots pass by on the street, one carrying a phone, another a latte, a third walking a robotic dog. A robot carrying a lunch box drops change—which looks like gears and washers instead of coins—into the waiting Styrofoam cup of a homeless man in tattered clothing on the sidewalk.
However, both the cover art and the article it references—Sheelah Kolhatkar’s “Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords,” also called “Dark Factory” in the print issue—underplay the truly terrifying vision of the future the piece ultimately prophesies: a future with economic affluence, manufacturing efficiency, and few to no jobs for low-skilled workers.
Another Glimpse Into the Future
Alarmism over technological development isn’t new. As Neil Postman points out in his classic book “Technopoly,” people have resisted innovations and advancement at least as far back as Plato, who, somewhat ironically, recorded a dialogue in which Socrates presents arguments against using writing. The Luddites are famously (and somewhat inaccurately) supposed to have been wholly anti-automation. Karl Marx criticized machines for their tendency to divorce workers from the product of their labor, turning the worker himself into a simple cog in the larger machine. The film “Ex Machina” is just one example of an entire genre of “robots become sentient and turn on their makers” stories. You get the idea.
Since Plato, we’ve developed everything from the printing press to nuclear weapons to Tinder, and the critics of those technological developments haven’t gone away. Nevertheless, with the breakneck pace at which Silicone Valley advances artificial intelligence research, and given the fact that we all have veritable supercomputers in our pockets, it’s easy to drown out the critical voices in a flood of information and glowing screens.
The New Yorker’s article gives us a glimpse into a future we must wrestle with sincerely. What is a low-skill worker to do when low-skill jobs are disappearing? David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist, is quoted in the article as saying, ”It’s not that we’re running out of work or jobs per se. But a subset of people with low skill levels may not be able to earn a reasonable standard of living based on their labor.” Kolhatkar points out that our current industrial system relies on scarcity of labor, but what happens when labor is no longer scarce? What happens when you have machines making other machines in order to make other machines?
Higher Demands of Fewer Workers
Of course, someone must kick-start the whole process and supervise the labor to make sure the machines are running correctly. Kolhatkar notes that one factory she’s visiting has begun seeking “more highly educated managers, who are now expected to have a college degree, not just a high-school diploma.” In other words, factories are both replacing low-skill workers with automation and instituting demands that make it difficult for those without higher education to attain any sort of upward mobility, or any job at all, in the manufacturing industry, an industry that used to reward hard work and demonstrated responsibility from those with little formal education.
The article deftly points out that the problem is not exactly a lack of capital or a stagnant economy. In fact, the economy continues to grow even as wages remain steady and low-skill jobs disappear. But it hardly helps an uneducated factory worker that corporate giants continue to make reasonable profits while he struggles to survive. It hardly helps the truck driver to know that someone, somewhere will still be making money and contributing to the abstract deity known as “the economy” even if his job is nixed in favor of self-driving cars.
It is telling, or perhaps terrifying, that those who work most closely with advancements in automation and artificial intelligence are beginning to advocate for universal basic income in droves. If an imagined future where automation replaces low-skill humans really comes about, there are two readily apparent options: create new work opportunities, or establish a comprehensive, efficient, effective welfare system that guarantees everyone a basic income.
So what about the first option? Are there work opportunities that could provide a home for workers displaced by automation? Are there sectors that won’t be taken over by automatons? Proponents of automation frequently point to the service industry as one example of a growing industry that could welcome workers in the new economy. However, it hardly seems likely that the service industry will simultaneously resist the pressure to economize its production and service through automation where possible and grow sufficiently to support the weight of a hypothetical influx of workers. Even if it could, would it last? Or would the god of efficiency win out over human relationships there, too? Time will tell.
The Past Isn’t Always Indicative of the Future
Those who scoff at Luddite alarmism typically point to previous technological and industrial revolutions as times where people expressed similar concerns about displaced workers. We survived those time periods, they reason, so there’s no reason we can’t make it through this. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the market is responsive and fluid enough to fill the gaps and come up with solutions for these impending issues.
However, in a world of rapid innovation those living through the Industrial Revolutions could only dream of, it seems overly naïve to suppose that past performance is any indicator of future results. That sort of reasoning is fallacious in standard cases, and technology seems to be exceptional in its tendency to exceed expectations. The only guarantee is advancement. To what end? We seem incapable of asking that question, or at least capable of only providing shallow answers.
What of the second option, then? Is a wealthy world free of low-skill work really all that nightmarish? Kolhatkar interviews a Brown University robotocist, Stefanie Tellex, who is an advocate of UBI. Tellex explains, “There’s enough money for everyone… it’s just not in your pocket, it’s in the one per cent’s pocket. If only we had the right progressive tax system, this wouldn’t be such a problem.”
I will leave it to the experts to hash out policy proposals that deal with the practical concerns of implementing UBI, but I will simply say this: some both support unchecked innovation and corporate growth and oppose aggressive taxation. Perhaps those people would do well to consider which of those two stances is flexible.
Work Is More than Merely Money
Without realizing it, Kolhatkar has described a world almost exactly like the future dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel “Player Piano.” Vonnegut fantasized about a world in which scarcity was a non-issue because automation had maximized efficiency. People were taken care of through the excessive wealth this maximal efficiency created. The only people who needed to work were the engineers and managers needed to keep the machines on track and those whose jobs had not yet been replaced by machines (though they knew their end was nigh).
However, this Edenic paradise in a world of UBI and automation was far from wonderful. You see, Vonnegut supposed that people don’t just work to make money (after all, people have been working a lot longer than the Federal Reserve has been around), they work because they need to. Work gives people something to do, something to dignify their existence and imbue their life with a productive and creative purpose. From Adam to the modern factory laborer, work is an essential part of human existence.
One of Kolhatkar’s interviewees remarks that there is “something irreplaceable about the combination of sentient judgment and human hands.” If he is referring to simple dexterity and skill, whether he’s right depends on the limits of our technological prowess. But if he’s referring to something else, something intangible, something deeply and essentially human in the process of creation, than he could not be more correct.
In his article “Folk Tales,” Patrick Deneen explains, “The practical result of much technology, even when pursued for seemingly good ends, Vonnegut argues, is to render human work increasingly meaningless and human relationships irrelevant. Vonnegut’s critique would remind us that there is a pleasure, a reward to playing a piano with one’s own hands that cannot be captured in the perfect mechanism of a player piano.”
If Vonnegut’s predictions are right, the thing we should fear is not the imagined future on the cover of The New Yorker where humankind is languishing while robots make our goods. Rather, we should fear a world where work, face-to-face interaction, and real human relationship become optional and thus so does our own dignity. What sort of world are we creating? Is it one where every man is granted the ability to dignify himself with a productive place in society? Is it one where we value the human and the personal over cold machine efficiency?
The most chilling line in Kolhatkar’s article comes from the mouth of a factory worker, once a supervisor of men and now primarily a overseer of machines. He explains, “It isn’t so much that we’re eliminating jobs, we’re eliminating the waste.” Perhaps he’s right. In a world where efficiency is a virtue, an end unto itself, waste elimination is key. Only now, in the world of “Our New Robot Overlords,” the waste we are eliminating is man himself.