Humanity, You're Fired!

04/07/2016 13:56

Much of human history has been defined by the fight for stuff. From the first cave dweller who raised a club and grunted, "Brute force says this is my stuff," to the feudal kings who announced, "Our most glorious Lord granted me dominion over all this stuff," to the contemporary capitalist who says, "The market has decided this is my stuff," every age has had its own rules for apportioning stuff.

Well, the history of stuff is about to begin a new era, or more correctly, a new era has already begun, most of us just haven't realised it yet. But we're going to, and fast.

I once spent a year working in an industrial laundry. My job was to stand at the end of a giant sheet press, folding the ejected sheets in half. For the uninitiated, a sheet press is a huge machine that takes wet linen straight from the industrial washers, runs it through a set of superheated rollers, drying and pressing at the same time. Mechanical arms then fold the crisp, dried sheet six times until it is ejected from a slot. My job was to stand by the slot and do one final fold, and, as I wilted in the sweltering heat by this hellish machine, the only question going through my mind was why the designer hadn't put in one more arm so the press could do the whole thing, negating the need for me to stand there getting bored out of my skull.

Of course, before the advent of the sheet press, processing, pressing, and folding sheets on such a scale would have meant employing at least a dozen people, but, standing there in the boiling room, hallucinating about the extra folding arm, I was foolishly wishing away the last remaining human role, fantasising about putting myself, and anyone who might follow me, out of a job.

We're all familiar with the way automation has transformed many industries that rely on manual labour, putting huge swathes of the population out of work, forcing people to retrain or face long-term unemployment. We've seen the rise of self-service tills, self-service petrol pumps, self-service banking. Now we have artificial intelligence responding to our phone calls and banks such as RBS replacing human staff with robo-advisers for complex functions such as investment advice.

The rise of machines has previously been limited by their lack of intelligence, but they've started to get very clever. Until now, most of the jobs lost to automation have been taken from working class communities. When we hear of 220 people being laid off from a car plant, or 500 people being made redundant from a factory, many of us think, "how sad, but they'll be able to retrain and get a better job," and then forget about them.

But what if they can't? What if the number of jobs that can be done by humans is shrinking? And what if what's happened to the blue-collar workforce is about to happen to the middle class? Scratch that, it's already happening to the middle class; investment advisers are being laid off and replaced by artificial intelligence. And it's not just investment advisers.

IBM now has a computer called Ross that can do the job of a fully qualified lawyer. US law firm, Baker & Hostetler, has hired Ross to take over its entire bankruptcy practice. A Japanese software program wrote a short story and almost won a literary prize. Insurance companies are planning to replace actuaries and underwriters with machines. Google's Deep Dream neural network has created some astonishing works of art and researchers at the University of Tubingen in Germany have developed a neural net that can emulate the styles of some of the greatest artists in history . And we're all expecting the day when vehicles can drive themselves. How many jobs won't be done better and more efficiently by machines? When one tries to list jobs that intelligent machines can't do, one discovers there are far fewer than one might think. The compassion of a carer, perhaps? The emotion of actor, maybe? Is your job safe from the rise of the machines? Are you sure?

2032 Olympic Volleyball Team?

As automation creeps up the social strata, how will the middle class react to the prospect of long-term unemployment? More importantly, how will we allocate wealth? Switzerland recently voted on whether to implement a national wage, a salary that is paid regardless of whether one chooses to work or not. The proposal was rejected, but the fact such a radical reassessment of the way we allocate wealth is even being considered tells us all we need to know about the pressing nature of this issue. The scale and pace of the advance of the machine age is going to challenge the blithe assumption that humans who have been discarded and replaced by machines will be able to find work elsewhere. There simply won't be enough jobs.

John Pilger wrote a fascinating account of why Britain voted to leave the EU. While I disagree with some of its content, the fact that Manchester, Britain's second-largest city, now has 600,000 people living in extreme poverty and 1.6 million in penury, should concern us all, because unless we fundamentally change the structure of the economy, long-term unemployment and extreme poverty are coming for us all, except the lucky few who own the machines.

Instead of engaging in the same old bunfights, our politicians need to start planning for a society where the majority of people have been made redundant by technology. The Bank of England's chief economist says half of all jobs in Britain are at risk from automation. Oxford University economists Dr Carl Frey and Dr Michael Osborne estimate that 40% of all jobs in Britain could be lost to automation by 2030. That's 13 years from now. This is happening so quickly that young people need to be factoring it into their higher education choices.

"The market has decided this is my stuff," won't work for much longer because there soon won't be enough people with jobs to support a market. The next phase of the history of stuff might be, "We all get the same stuff," but that sounds suspiciously like socialism, which can't possibly be right...