The rise of the machines isn’t science fiction. It’s a reality that could have profound implications for millions of jobs in the near future. Yet the presidential candidates aren’t talking about it. A new book looks at the rough road ahead and its implications for democracy.
One of the biggest issues in the presidential race is voter anger over lost middle-income jobs, real and perceived damage from trade deals, and rising inequality.
But none of the candidates is talking about the elephant pushing its way into the room: a new wave of job-eating information technology, advanced automation, robots and artificial intelligence.
The elites have been discussing what’s coming for some time, notably a 2014 speech by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent Alphabet. Huge numbers of middle-class jobs were going to be automated, and few new positions would replace them. He called it the “defining” issue of the next two or three decades.
A study from the previous year by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the vulnerability of more than 700 occupations. They found that about 47 percent of the American workforce was at risk.
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University of Washington professor Pedro Domingos, author of “The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World,” warned me late last year that we were in for a rough ride.
“Over the next five to 20 years, some occupations will disappear, but lots of occupations will be created,” he said.
People would still be needed, especially if they adapt to team with machines. “You can’t outrun the horse,” Domingos said, “so you ride the horse.”
A horse of a different color is represented in the new book, “People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy,” by Robert McChesney and John Nichols.
McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine, have written about this revolution for average readers.
While they were here this month for a Town Hall event, they stopped by to talk to editors and writers at The Seattle Times.
McChesney likened what’s coming to “the Cambrian explosion,” a relatively brief evolutionary period during which the ancestors of most modern organisms appeared. “What the human race is about to enter … most jobs are history.”
The authors are not anti-technology. But they focus on how an already job-strained and wage-dampened economy will face greater pressure. In addition, we confront an increasingly inert democracy where powerful business interests get their way and average people feel powerless.
“This is the means,” they write, “by which unelected bankers and billionaires most effectively and steadily define the popular discourse.”
One result is that people are unprepared. The question isn’t whether we can return to a 1960-style middle class, but how to ensure economic opportunity for millions who could be affected by automation in the near future. Old-style retraining won’t be enough, especially for people in their 50s and older.
Also, how can we prevent the rise of fascism or other extremism as a result of the severe dislocations and loss of opportunity? Nichols talked about how “people will be looking for North Stars” in the storm.
The danger of American fascism, crony capitalism tied to an authoritarian regime, was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s biggest worries during the Great Depression.
Most businesses, Nichols said, can heavily automate now, but political considerations are holding them back. In China, electronics giant Foxconn is pushing for totally automated factories.
In industry after industry, a tipping point is getting closer where even free human labor couldn’t compete with automation.
Bits and pieces are emerging in the media: the chief executive of Carl’s Jr. and Hardees saying he’d rather automate than pay higher wages; a Domino’s pizza-delivery robot is being tested in Australia; shipping giant Maersk studying the use of drones;artificial intelligence could take even high-paying jobs in finance and other elite fields.
“The No. 1 job for men is driving a vehicle,” Nichols said. Self-driving cars and trucks could “wipe those off the board, and several million men with good jobs are out of work. And it’s moving into the middle class.”
To be sure, contrary evidence is available. Amazon is an aggressive user of robots. Yet it also employed 230,800 humans at the end of 2015 (not counting seasonal workers), a nearly 50 percent increase over the previous year.
People work alongside robots at Boeing’s assembly plants. The company’s official line is, robots aren’t replacing people but making possible higher rates of production.
And while Freightliner is making rapid advances in a self-driving truck, it “would still need a driver present to monitor progress and take over for in-city driving, docking, fueling, etc.,” according to Steve Gordon, chief operating officer of Pacific-based Gordon Trucking. “I think a manned autonomous truck will be out there within the next five to 10 years. I think a truly driverless truck is a long, long ways out.”
But this coexistence with the machines may not last.
With America’s “democratic infrastructure” broken and critical checks and balances against big corporate power denuded, average Americans will be increasingly angry and desperate.
Interestingly, the authors praise Seattle’s drive for a $15 minimum wage as the kind of popular pushback needed. But they concede it risks giving companies incentives to automate work.
McChesney and Nichols advocate an unabashedly progressive response, building off FDR’s “economic bill of rights”, proposed in his 1944 State of the Union speech.
In addition to a broad safety net against the coming dislocation, the authors emphasize the need to get big money out of politics, stamp out corruption and stop monopoly abuses.
You may not agree. But this is a discussion we need to be having. Drift only ensures future misery.