Welcome to the information revolution. The utopia of automated production is upon us.
The long foreseen golden age, where people's material needs will be served by machines, where the planet will become a garden, and each person will be free to spend their time creating great works of art and exploring their human potential.
But first, the Puritan work ethic must die.
"What do you do?" Over the past two and a half centuries, this question has come to dominate our social relationships. The industrial revolution saw the majority of people go from being tied to the land in a rural agrarian society, to an industrial society, where increasing specialization has made that question more and more common when people are meeting each other for the first time.
Technology, in the form of things we create to either reduce costs or improve efficiency, has been a feature of human societies since the beginning. The advent of fossil energy accelerated the pace of innovation and the impacts of poorly thought out "solutions" to old problems.
Social upheaval, job loss, and disruption in labour markets have become the rule, rather than the exception. Today it isn't industrialization that is driving the disruption. Now it is the information revolution that is affecting the ability of entire industries to create jobs. Automation and artificial intelligence are making steady inroads into many traditionally "safe" fields of employment, including professions like lawyer and doctor.
At the top end of incomes for semi-skilled and skilled workers today is the oil patch. The 2014 drop in the price of oil drove an estimated 100,000 people out of their jobs in Alberta and double that in Texas.
Over half of those jobs will never be coming back due to automation, even as the price of oil and activity in the field begins to ramp up again. Suncor has already committed to purchasing 175 autonomous heavy haul trucks, eliminating as many jobs that paid better than $100k per year. At the bottom end, fast food workers are facing the end of an era as robots and touch screen counter attendants take over their jobs. Some try to lay this at the feet of minimum wage increases, but in reality the drive to automate mundane repetitive work has been going on for decades.
The immigrant "problem" in the U.S. has led to a shortage of field workers. They are now rapidly being replaced by robots as it has become apparent that growers are unable to pay Americans enough to do the work. And now a combination of factors is driving what is being called "the retail apocalypse".
The primary factor here has been overbuilding of commercial space in suburbia and too much debt, but Internet shopping, and computer technology in general, continues to decimate jobs and disrupt worker lives at an ever increasing pace in this sector as well. None of this is new. What is new is the pace of change and the scale of the disruptions.
Where we used to lose jobs twenty or thirty at a time as businesses bought new machinery, some see as much as half of all jobs lost to automation over the next decade. Should we be concerned? Or can we do as we have done in the past and shrug and just tell people to retrain, move to a new city, and get back to work?
The problem, as I see it, is that this time automation is coming not just for the industrial jobs in the factories and forests, it is coming for all of the jobs. Professional drivers can see the writing on the wall as self driving trucks are already making the run from Texas to California. Receptionists are being replaced by robots named "Pepper" that cost the businesses "employing" them the equivalent of one years salary for a human.
It is difficult to talk about what comes next. How can we possibly transition to a world where most jobs will simply no longer exist? Where the most basic unskilled tasks and highly skilled precision work alike will be done quicker, cheaper, and far more profitably by a machine? The continuing advances in computer technology and robotics have come not for the jobs in this sector or that sector where the paybacks are apparent.
They have come for jobs in every sector of our economy. And it isn't going to stop any time soon. I have little faith in our ability to create new jobs in entirely new fields of human endeavour that will be immune to artificial intelligence and automation as long as profit remains the driving motive in our economy. Will we continue to demand that people find jobs in order to eat and sleep indoors? Probably.
Can we change this core idea of our society before tens of thousands of people are forced into the growing ranks of the homeless? Probably not. And especially not if we never acknowledge that the problem isn't really technological or economic. The problem is social, and social problems are the toughest nuts to crack.
We need to get over our fixation on "jobs" as a measure of social status and human worth and start taking a hard look at what life is going to be like tomorrow. And it might even be time to start talking about alternatives to where we are today before we are forced into a dystopian future where the few people who own the robots do just fine, thank-you very much, while the majority of us subsist on the fringes of a rapidly automating society.
— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.