AI, automation and the future of work

By Andy Mason. Originally published by Pulp, 4 Dec 2016.

 

Three weeks on and the world is still reeling from the news that a bright orange cartoon supervillain will be the next president of the world’s leading economic and political power.

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As predicted by The Simpsons 16 years ago. Pic source: The Guardian

Most media coverage and left-leaning discussions on social media since have focussed on the role of sexism and racism in paving the way for Trump’s victory. The connection between anti-immigrant sentiment and job losses in the US due to outsourcing and low-cost immigrant labour, is a deeper story which has mostly been ignored or glossed over. Warning: shitloads of hyperlinks because we don’t fuck around.

In order to appeal to middle (white) America, who are supposedly pissed off at the decline of US manufacturing, Trump is promising to end illegal immigration into the US and abolish trade deals that have allegedly caused job losses in the USA. In the end he is tilting at windmills. US manufacturing is actually more productive than ever, and the previous trend of offshoring is being replaced by one of ‘re-shoring’ as more efficient robots are making it cost-effective to invest in American factories again. Automation has been the source of most of the job losses in US manufacturing, rather than international outsourcing. So in addition to being racist garbage, no amount of Trump’s tough border policy or anti-free trade sentiment will make America great again.

While previous waves of technological development have made industries and jobs redundant, new ones have been created in their place. Thus, countries like the USA and Australia have seen a decline in the share of employment in manufacturing and agriculture and an increase in employment in the service sector.

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As the global economy enters a 4th industrial revolution based on AI and automation, there are some very real questions about the future of work and the capacity of the economy to provide jobs for everyone. General purpose robots, such as 3D printing technology, are likely to displace manufacturing jobs even more, self-driving cars and trucks will completely transform the transport industry, and robot tractors and drones will further reduce the need for agricultural labour.

However, it isn’t just blue-collar work which is on the chopping block. New programs utilising machine learning, while still experimental, stand to replace even high-skilled professional jobs in law, as shown by a bot which successfully challenges parking fines,  and medicine, with programs in the pipeline that will be able to diagnose illness more reliably than a person..

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Pic source: Sam Spratt, Gizmodo

If you’re thinking we’ll all be safe in service work, care work and creative work, these sectors also stand to be taken over by robots. General purpose robots are already being implemented to replace fast-food workers cooking and serving food, while humanoid and friendly-faced robots are being developed to serve functions in the sex industry and nursing. And this year, a program created by Google started making its own music.

AI may also perpetuate, rather than free us from, social prejudices. This year Microsoft built a bot to learn from public tweets which promptly regressed into a computerised version of a neo-nazi 14 year old.There was also a program designed to judge a beauty contest which decided it didn’t like dark-skinned people.

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Globalisation (aka neoliberalism) over the last couple of decades has created an increasingly polarised world, where unprecedented productivity and wealth in rich countries exists alongside enduring poverty in poor countries. It’s a world in which Australians have the second-highest per-capita water usage in the world while 1 in 10 of the world’s population have no reliable access to safe drinking water. While this reflects a history of colonialism, technological change is also implicated, as access to information and communications technology and the most advanced machinery determines access to the benefits of the global capitalist economy.

Inequality within countries is also rising, even in wealthy countries which have benefited from globalisation as a whole. Urban Australia, where new service industries and informations & communications technology have concentrated, has benefited at the expense of regional and rural Australia. In those areas, the long-term loss of agriculture, manufacturing and mining jobs has led to permanent structural unemployment and economic decline which may be worsened by automation.

The prospect of the 4th industrial revolution leading to large sections of the world’s population becoming not only unemployed but unemployable, has led to calls from high-profile tech pioneers like Elon Musk for a Universal Basic Income. This would cushion workers from the effects of displacement from AI and automation and allow people to pursue other things. However, these proposals remain below the radar of mainstream political discourse. And while many on the left embrace robots as a pathway to economic abundance and freedom from the drudgery of work, conjuring visions of ‘fully automated luxury communism’, asa utopian future is by no means certain.

At Standing Rock in North Dakota, Indigenous people are engaged in a bitter struggle to assert their sovereign territorial rights and prevent the construction of an oil pipeline through their land. Largely ignored by the media during the frenzied coverage leading up to the US election, the Standing Rock Sioux have been met with a hugely repressive response from government authorities. Federal intelligence agencies have used digital surveillance and jamming against protesters, while drones and heavily militarised police are a daily presence and have led to serious injuries among protesters.

Meanwhile, cutting-edge new private settlements using new technologies are being built in poor countries like Nigeria to shield local elites from the effects of climate change. The dystopian future is already here, a future where those with access to resources and technology are seeking to wall themselves off from the majority who will have to go without.

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Humanity is facing a monumental choice. We cannot separate the issue of technological change from the need for social, political and economic change. Either we can create a world in which machines are owned by everyone and used for the benefit of all, or we face a bleak future in which the rich leave us to rot while they destroy the planet, merge their rapacious consciousness with super-intelligent AI, and sail away to colonise Mars.