“Thinking” robots will soon shake our definition of worth
11 min read
Let us pause in this month of Labor Day to reflect on the state of working families, ponder the future of work itself, and collectively shriek at the top of our lungs: “THE ROBOTS ARE COMING! THE ROBOTS ARE COMING! … EEK! THEY’RE ALREADY HERE!”
“Change is inevitable. Progress is not. “–MAX MCKEOWN, The Truth About Innovation
Industrial automatons have been on the march for years. With their bionic ability to stamp, cut, insert, wire, weld, seal, paint, and otherwise assemble everything from Ford F-150 pick-ups to Apple’s latest iPhone, they are steadily devouring the middle-class job opportunities of factory workers. But this time is different.
Today’s proliferation of industrial robots is an advanced generation of extremely powerful, autonomous machines driven by a cognitive technology known as artificial intelligence (AI). This gives them a humanesque ability to learn, communicate, do multiple complex tasks, and make decisions on their own. In other words, to think.
According to a detailed 2017 analysis by MIT and Boston University economists, between 1990 and 2007, robots displaced some 670,000 industrial workers and precipitated a drastic decline in manufacturing wages. These researchers predict the number of factory robots will quadruple by 2025, costing as many as 3.4 million more jobs and cutting wage growth by as much as 2.6 percent. Automation–coupled with the effects of trade deals and offshoring–presents a devastating threat to blue-collar families.
Enjoying Hightower? How about a weekly email that gives you the full scoop?
And that’s not the half of it. Do you think your family’s future is safe if you don’t rely on factory work? Think again. Rapid advances in AI have already turned yesterday’s science fiction into today’s brave new “creative destruction”–the constant churn of economic and cultural innovations that destroy existing ways of doing things. A sprawling network of Silicon Valley-type inventors and investors, hundreds of university engineering and math departments, thousands of government-funded research projects, countless freelance innovators, and the entire corporate establishment are “re-inventing” practically every workplace by displacing humans with “more efficient” AI robots.
This top-down, mass-scale deployment of robots has already ushered in a whole new world of work. It’s a CEO’s dream of a capitalist paradise, where the workforce doesn’t call-in sick or take vacations, can’t file lawsuits, doesn’t organize unions–and is cheap. (In some industries a good, serviceable robot can be had for about $30,000.)
As a result, robots are rapidly climbing the pay ladder into white-collar and professional positions that millions of college-educated, middle-class employees have wrongly considered safe, including:
Doctoring. Robots have long served as surgical assistants, but today’s robotic sawbones can be the primary slicer-dicer, operating with more precision than humans. Robots are now performing millions of surgeries every year, from routine colonoscopies and knee replacements to tumor removals and other exacting surgeries that can exceed the reach of human physicians. Moreover, advanced doc-bots increasingly diagnose and choose treatments based on their ability to digest thousands of scientific articles, medical reports, patient records, etc. In 2012, Vinod Khosla, billionaire co-founder of Sun Microsystems, cheerfully noted: “Much of what physicians do … can be done better by sensors, passive and active data collections, and analytics.” His stunning conclusion was that computers will eventually replace 80 percent of what doctors now do.
Delivering the goods. While online retail giants have already eliminated hundreds of thousands of sales clerks by radically restructuring how consumers make purchases, AI systems are now poised to gobble up the jobs transporting those products. The first big targets are America’s tractor-trailer truckers, who number 1.8 million and have some of the few remaining, decent-paying jobs not requiring college degrees. High-tech engineers at Google, Uber, et al. are rolling out prototypes for fleets of driver-less trucks that can crisscross the country without rest breaks, sleep, or days off. In addition, the multitudes of workers who load and unload those trucks may be overrun by a new breed of Lilliputian robots. After studying the amazing strength of ants working in cooperation, Stanford University’s Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory built a team of six, 3.5-ounce microbots that can pull a 3,900-pound car (the equivalent of six humans able to move the Eiffel Tower).
Is it time to panic about conflict with robots? Research findings by MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and Boston U’s Pascual Restrepo suggest that “each additional robot in the US economy reduces employment by 5.6 workers.” There are many more alarming trends.
Maybe we should just chill. In “The Great Tech Panic,” economist James Surowiecki, writing in Wired, is more optimistic, arguing that the economic data show that robo-investment is slower than the pessimists have predicted–there’s time to adapt, he says. Still, he quotes Andrew McAfee, another MIT researcher: “The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.” Hmmm.
Seriously, we should get to work–organizing. In “How to Live Happily with Robots,” Jeffrey Sachs argues in The American Prospect that increasing automation can have an upside for us all–if the gains are shared by us all.
Amazon. This corporate behemoth’s ruthless focus on workplace “efficiency” has made it the poster-child job disrupter in the retail economy, maximizing robots to displace as many humans as possible, as soon as possible. The click-and-buy marketer’s massive warehouses are already buzzing hives of robots plucking millions of products from miles of shelves to fill online orders. More are coming. While Amazon staged a PR show in August around its nationwide “Job Day” event to hire 50,000 human workers, it has very quietly set about expanding its current swarm of full-time robots. In 2012 it bought an artificial intelligence developer, now named Amazon Robotics, to breed its own line of androids, and by August had added another 55,000 of these creatures to its100,000-strong warehouse workbotforce. Amazon is also pushing regulators to let it replace delivery workers with drones and is testing a chain of “Amazon Go” convenience stores “staffed” almost entirely by non-human AI systems. And it just paid $13.7 billion to swallow the Whole Foods grocery chain whole, loudly promising lower prices but whispering the method: replacing clerks, stockers, et al. with robots.
We already have human-less branch banks; restaurants with Chef Rob Robot in the kitchen; financial firms with online robo-advisors picking stocks; hotels with cute robotic bellhops; driverless farm equipment with computerized sensors dictating when to plow, plant, spray, and harvest; automated lawyer replacements for everything from contracts to divorces; computer-generated AI algorithms replacing human football coaches in deciding whether to run, pass, or punt; news reports without reporters, written instead by computers; and on and on. The Washington Post reported that the “automation bomb” could destroy 45 percent of US work activities, causing $2 trillion in lost annual wages.
A seismic wave
The invasion of today’s workplaces by these digital hordes is much bigger, far more sweeping in scope, and coming at us much faster than last century’s invasion of factory assembly lines by mechanical robots. This change portends an economic-cultural-political earthquake, fracturing our society’s assumptions about the value (and virtue) of work, the possibility of upward mobility, America’s commitment to egalitarianism, and even how we humans define ourselves. It’s not just labor advocates who are alarmed:
“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. [With AI] we’re summoning the demon.” -ELON MUSK, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX
“[AI] could spell the end of the human race. [It could] take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate.” -STEPHEN HAWKING, Nobel Prize-winning physicist
“[I] don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” -BILL GATES, founder of Microsoft
The answer to Gates’s bafflement lies in the preponderance of economists, high-tech execs and investors, economic pundits, and politicos of both major parties who mindlessly equate new technology with an unalloyed blessing for the greater good.
For example, a July 22 Wall Street Journal piece happily assured us that reducing human labor leaves “remaining workers more productive and their companies more profitable. These profits then find their way into the pockets of employees, stockholders, and consumers. This newfound wealth, in turn, increases demand for products and services, compensating for lost jobs by employing even more people.”
Wow–that’s a more magical place than Disney World. I want to live there!
Never mind that the bulk of “newfound wealth” has been going to the 0.01 percenters, or that the new jobs these ecstatic laissez-fairyland ideologues predict are mostly in the low-wage service sector. The Journal helpfully offered a list of our new career options: “Hospitality workers, tour guides, bartenders, dog walkers … yoga instructors, and masseuses.” Gushing that the coming wave of artificial intelligence will free workers to be employed in “a golden age of personal service,” the article flippantly declared that we should rejoice in “the familiar capitalist cycle of creation and destruction.” Yes, boss–a low-wage, no-benefits, dead-end golden age of gross injustice and inequality. Thank you, boss!
A bot at the top
CEOS AND OTHER TOP DOGS in our economic hierarchy are, of course, the primary “winners” in the race to roboticize work. They are gleaning ever-higher profits and extravagant annual bonuses for themselves by pushing multitudes of living/breathing workers off the corporate payroll. But, surprise! Maybe even these fortunate few are not immune from harm. They might take note of a 2014 move by Deep Knowledge Ventures, a Hong Kong financial corporation: It chose a robot to serve on its board of directors. Citing its superior ability to analyze and predict market trends, DKV’s human directors elected the algorithm, named “VITAL,” as an “equal member” of the board, with a full a vote on investments. How soon, then, before we have a bot-plot, with a cabal of rogue robots conspiring to overthrow an unsuspecting CEO and seize control of a corporation?
The profiteers and techies propelling us into the deep unknown of a robot economy concede that the fast-evolving machines will be radically disruptive, not just in the workplace, but throughout society. Yet, they insist that AI will end up a godsend, even for the millions “adjusted” out of their jobs. Huh? Trust us, they say, genuflecting to Efficiency and Productivity, their twin gods of economic progress. Intelligent robots–faster, cheaper, more reliable, and possibly smarter than human workers–will reduce labor costs (efficiency) and increase output (productivity), thus generating the one product the Powers That Be constantly demand from our economy: more wealth. Just wait, they say, this is gonna be BIG!
But big for whom? Shhhh, they tell such impertinent questioners, we’ll get to that later. Meanwhile, we can’t slow, much less stand in the way of, the beneficent promise of AI. Those who even question the establishment’s mantra that labor-reducing technologies are inherently good and will magically enrich everyone (somehow, someday) are derided with high tech’s ultimate insult–the mocking “Scarlet L”–LUDDITE!
What’s the origin of this corporate-hurled pejorative? In 1811, skilled weavers and other textile makers in Northern England launched a short-lived but momentous rebellion. These artisans had been the middle class of their day. Working from their own cottages, they made a decent living producing quality stockings and cloth that merchants sold throughout the Commonwealth.
But suddenly, as the 19th century dawned, a new industrial factory system mushroomed across the land, pushed by selfish and ruthless capitalists, intent on remaking the cultural/economic structure of work by: (1) herding unskilled, poverty-wage laborers into dangerous, dismal factories to serve as cyborgs to automated, coal-fired looms that mass-produced textiles; (2) supplanting quality goods with shoddy, machine-cut quantity production; (3) taking monopoly control of large markets to shut out the middle-class artisans and cut them down to beggar-class poverty; (4) reaping the savings from “machine labor” as additional profits for themselves; and (5) brandishing their exploitative system as the new, natural order of capital supremacy over labor, based on an ideological fabrication of “free-market efficiency.”
In March 1811, the area’s displaced artisan workers erupted in a fury of vigilante justice at such avarice and arrogance, launching night raids to destroy the textile barons’ factories. Their movement took the moniker “Luddites” from a fictitious textile apprentice who’d been beaten by his master. In the story, young Ned Ludd retaliates by destroying the man’s loom and fleeing into nearby Sherwood Forest–also the home to another mythical seeker of justice: Robin Hood. In Ned’s spirit, the well-organized Luddites, heroically avenging wrongs to poor and oppressed textile workers, sledgehammered every factory loom they could find, splintering about 800 in just a few months.
The common people united in support of the rebels, but, of course, the British royals and Parliament rushed to protect the very wealthy (and very panicked) factory owners. London quickly declared “machine-breaking” a capital crime, sent 14,000 troops to flush out Luddites, staged show trials, and publicly hung 24 rebels. Within 15 months, the government had crushed the rebellion and enthroned industrialization and free-market ideology to rule the economic future.
See, say today’s techno-politico royals who are trying to enthrone a robot future over us 21st century commoners, it’s sheer folly to think anyone can halt technological progress. Don’t be a Luddite! they shout.
But, I say: Don’t be a dupe! The Luddite rebellion was never about the machines, nor were the workers a bunch of know-nothing hicks flailing at progress. The artisans were the progressives.
First, far from rejecting technology, they were highly trained, creative, and very skilled craftspeople who invented small versions of automated looms to enhance their own productivity. The rebels smashed the expensive factory machines because they were the most obvious and most smashable symbol of the owners’ rank greed, and as a way to express their disgust with an immoral and inhumane industrial system imposed by soulless, moneyed elites.
Second, far from being small-minded rubes caring only about their own jobs, Luddites were battling for social justice–specifically for their culture’s deeply held, fundamental value of fair play. For generations, cottage textile workers and the merchants who marketed their products held “fair profit” as an ethical compact. The concept was as simple as it sounds–when products were sold to consumers, merchants and makers alike took a negotiated, fair share of the profits. However, with the rise of free-market capitalist theory (spread among England’s “polished class” by Adam Smith’s 1776 treatise, The Wealth of Nations), industrial merchants found an intellectual rational to impose a new ethic of selfish greed on all commerce. Thus, what’s “fair” became whatever the industrialists could steal from the workers’ rightful share and pilfer from the consumer’s coin purse.
This was not a fight against technology, but a poignant class struggle over social morality–specifically, how to share the profits of a new, disruptive technology. Two centuries later, like it or not, you and I are in the exact same fight. We are Luddites! And, we must realize that, just like those textile artisans, we are not battling bots, but the grabbiness of a few moneyed corporations and investors intent on claiming all of the profits of AI–everyone else and every one of America’s democratic, all-in-this-together values be damned.
Actually, they are doing us a favor, for the coming conflict around robotization opens a way for progressives to put the much bigger concept of “fair profit” back on the front burner of public debate–and then turn up the grassroots heat. When corporate profiteers exult that the looming robot revolution “is gonna be BIG,” they are right–but for a much different reason than they could ever imagine.
We’ve got some new adventures coming down the pike, and to start preparing for that, we recommend you visit and subscribe to our Substack website and newsletter. More information to come, but if you want to get a head start, head over there now.