Monday, September 26, 2016

Are Robots After Your Job?


Victor Scheinman died last week.

Who is Victor Scheinman, you ask?  Well, he's one of the engineers responsible for putting thousands of assembly line workers out of work.  He invented the "six degree of freedom" robotic arm, also called the Stanford Arm, named for the school he was attending when he invented it. 

To put it another way, Scheinman helped move the mechanization of repeatable tasks from the realm of science fiction to industrial science.

Okay, you say; but how does this impact me?

Well, the passing of Mr. Scheinman may not directly relate to your life, unless you used to be an auto worker, or you mourn the economic collapse of Detroit, or you're a futurist who looks forward to the day when robots will rule our economy.  For the rest of us, however, Scheinman's death serves as a reminder that, whether you realize it or not, we're standing on the brink of a brave new world in which robots and artificial intelligence just might impoverish many of us.

Yes, that's right:  That brave new future so many of Silicon Valley's brightest tech minds are crafting for us?  We just might not be employable in it.

Robots already build cars, and a lot of other gadgets we use every day.  Robots vacuum floors, change kitty litter, mow and water the lawn, and rock infants to sleep.  There are life-size, anatomically-simulating robots that will have sex with men.  Robots participate in surgeries.  They write news stories - thousands of them a year now.  Our military is developing drones equipped with tiny poison darts to replace human soldiers in some combat situations.

Indeed, robotics is just as much about replacing humans as it is cool technology.  Some experts are beginning to wonder if unemployment rates of 50% to 75% might be in the not-too-distant future for Western, non-agrarian economies.

Other experts hopefully predict that while robots will replace humans for most routine and so-called undesirable jobs, human creativity will be generating other avenues of employment that will offset the loss of traditional jobs.  But these optimists tend to be employed by companies - such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple - that stand to reap a significant financial windfall as their technology, ostensibly, helps lead this social and economic revolution.

There are also some giddy economists who see limitless new opportunities for people freed from the drudgery of chores overtaken by robots and artificial intelligence.  Companies will save money on salaries, personnel benefits, and all the other costs with which human workers burden their employers.  After all, computers don't make mistakes, and if they do, their artificial intelligence supposedly learns from them.  Computers don't take vacations, or have to leave early to take a child to the pediatrician.  Computers don't arrive late or take five extra minutes for lunch.  Computers don't lie, play office politics, get jealous, or steal from the company.  They don't require parking lots, transit passes, health insurance, or even an annual Christmas party.

Oh - excuse me - an annual "holiday" party.

Yeah, computers are already politically correct, too.  So, no discrimination lawsuits.

According to optimistic futurists, robots will save employers so much money in the long run, companies will have that much more money to hire folks to develop new products to sell.  New resources for investments and venture capital will be realized.  According to employment statistics, the Western workplace has already survived the telephone, automobile, desktop publishing, and other advancements we take for granted today.  There's only reason to hope for even better things as robots free us from the time-wasting, money-wasting drudgery that remains in the workplace of 2016.

For his part, the controversial physicist Stephen Hawking is taking a wait-and-see approach to the coming changes, saying that "we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history."

(Aside from the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of course - as if Hawking unintentionally omitted human history's most pivotal figure from his analysis.)

Frankly, however, doesn't it all seem a bit audacious on the part of technology scientists to themselves determine those jobs that are mundane, or not worth the human toil that is required to perform them?  For a group of people who generally consider themselves to be on the forefront of progressive thought, their stratification of a task's value based on the level of intelligence, dirtiness, or prestige involved smacks of elitism, doesn't it?  Why not simply admit that you're exploiting technology not for the good of humanity, but for your own career's sake?  Robotics experts and artificial intelligence developers seem to be spending almost as much time justifying the morality of what they're doing as they are the mechanics of how they're doing it.

This all speaks to the dangers of subtracting the human component from theoretical baselines of both technology and capitalism, right?  The collateral damage of focusing on the lowest common denominator, or   reductionism, or survival of the fittest.  The lower the level, the more expendable we believe it is.  We value efforts to derive the greatest profit from the least cost, even if it costs somebody else. 

Although it must be said that China, an officially communistic nation, will have more industrial robots than any other country by next year, capitalistic or otherwise.  So, theoretically at least, the Chinese may provide a living laboratory when it comes the effects of robotization on unemployment.  Most Western countries have already relocated major chunks of their manufacturing industries to China, and capitalism, along with the entrepreneurialism and creativity it nurtures, has allowed us to at least survive this long without those jobs.  But can China's state-crafted economic model withstand our new era of robotics?  Perhaps their experience will serve as a template - or a warning - for ours.

Then again, many of us have maintained for years that conventional workers unions have outlived their usefulness, and are presently a drag on our economy.  But if you fear the robot revolution, perhaps workers unions are our biggest weapon in the epic employment battle looming before us.

After all, robots don't strike, but they also don't pay union dues.


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