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.

 

Film screening of Heritage Fight

Written by Agnes McKingley

 

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Tonight Cinema Politica organised a film screening of Heritage Fight for Radical Education Week at University of Sydney. Radical Education Week has seen a display of different workshops, skill-sharing events and discussions surrounding a range of subjects which are deeply relevant to the emerging citizens among Syndey Uni’s youth. The workshops are free and open to anyone, not just uni students.

Heritage Fight followed the efforts of a community which would not allow unethical and damaging industrialisation to enter its borders.

I decided to go see Heritage Fight because I am planning on moving to Western Australia next year, and the film takes place in the Kimberley, in Western Australia. I thought it would be a good, if somewhat humble, attempt at beginning to familiarise myself with some of the landscape, stories, geography and things that need doing there.

I started to spend time with members of the Australian Student Environment Network at the end of last year, in the build-up towards the Sydney Climate March, which took place in relevance to the Climate Talks in Paris. I will be sad to leave the Sydney community here, but excited to meet members of Western Australia, see what they are up to, and check out whether they are looking to work in solidarity with elders of the different Western Australia communities.

A day at Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Words by BRIDGET HARILAOU, photo by GAELE SOBOTT

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Paying a visit to the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy is good for your health. I’m dead serious. From sitting around the fire and having a yarn, to playing with the kids, to free dinner and making a bunch of new friends, the community, education and inspiration of the Embassy is incomparable. Here’s how my visit on Tuesday January 6, 2015 went.

After wandering into camp at about 4.30pm, I was invited into the shade of a tent to get out of the heat. I was chatting with some people staying at the Embassy and laughing at the antics of the most adorable baby, when some police from Redfern station stopped by. Apparently they had received a call from someone called ‘Amanda’ saying that Aunty Jenny (an Indigenous elder and leader of the Embassy) had been spotted here, breaching her bail conditions. Besides this information being factually incorrect, this phone call shows the constant persecution faced by the Embassy. The caller knew about Aunt Jenny’s arrest (she was assaulted by someone else on Embassy land, then arrested for it), the details of her bail conditions, and executed a calculated attempt to sabotage her before the court date. This is just a small example of the targeted attacks faced by activists fighting for Indigenous sovereignty in this country every day.

After the police left, a big group of kids came racing over from the playground throwing the Embassy into chaos! All the children were photographed for an exhibition celebrating the Embassy’s one-year anniversary. After the photo shoot I explored the Embassy’s organic community garden, showing one little 4-year-old girl the different smells of lemon balm and mint herbs, and talking to the two families who were visiting all the way from Moree. When the sun set, we all sat around the fire, watching some ‘Black Comedy’ YouTube videos (which are hilarious) and the feeling of community and friendship was warming. The fact that perfect strangers are welcome for a yarn really makes the Embassy a beautiful and comfortable space. We were entreated to stay for a feed by everyone there and everyone set about helping to cook. Once the pot was set on the fire, delicious smells began wafting through the camp. Maybe this is what entices a woman walking to Redfern station to stop and take a photo.

We all wave as she takes photos on her phone. Surprised, she waves back, looking unsure as we continue to beckon her over to the campfire. This is one of the things I love most about the Embassy, it welcomes anyone who is interested, even if they have no idea what the Embassy is! Tentatively, she starts to walk over to us, so I go around to show her the way into camp.

“Hello,” I say as she smiles nervously at me.

“Hello. What is this?”

I explain to her that it is a camp protesting the land sales that threaten to destroy the Aboriginal community centre and land known as ‘The Block’ for high-rise apartments.
“They shouldn’t sell it if there is already a community here!” She exclaims.

I know I’ve found a friend.

I invite her to join us for dinner, but she declines, saying it’s late and she has to go. I can’t quite remember why, but for some reason she says that she is Nepalese.
“My friend is Nepalese!” I respond, and immediately start throwing out the phrases he taught me.

“Mero nam Bridget ho,” “Santzay tsa?”

Her entire face lights up, as she laughs, probably at my horrible accent.

“Wow! It is so nice to hear Nepali. Where is your friend from?”

“A village near Pokhara.”

“I’m from Pokhara!”

“Wow!!”

It was a beautiful moment.

I gave her my phone number, in case she ever wanted to visit the Embassy, said goodbye and revelled in the wonder of how the Embassy brings people together.

By 8.00pm a sausage curry was cooking on the fire, and my friend Sonia and I were put in charge of making the rice. We washed it, put it on a stove to boil and laughed at the gentle teasing about how much we were stressing over cooking it! Once the rice was done, everyone ate together at the tables like one big family. The food was filling and tasty, with plenty to go around. More visitors arrived after dinner, and suddenly the camp was filled again. Some more unsavoury characters also visited, like a woman who claimed to be, “one sixteenth Aboriginal” but couldn’t tell us her country or mob or… anything really. I soon saw that First Nations folk can sniff out a liar in 3 seconds, and the possibly intoxicated woman was asked to leave. The rest of the night we chatted with an Iranian interior designer who had two Electrical Engineering degrees, two people who came to do a night watch to protect the Embassy from attacks, some Murri boys from Brisbane and so many more! By 10.30pm it was time to head home and we said goodbye to all the friends we’d made that day.

I had such a fantastic time and I made some amazing new friends that I would never have had the opportunity to meet without the Embassy. The community and family feel that you experience from a visit really puts the fire in your heart, and inspires you to more activism. Simply supporting First Nations people in claiming their land and community centre, through eating and chatting, sharing culture and making friends, is priceless. If you live in Sydney, the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy is literally across the road from Redfern station, and survives off of donations and grassroots support. Pay them a visit, don’t be shy! Everyone who is respectful and willing to learn is welcome at the Embassy.

 

This was originally published on ARMED. We thank them for letting us republish this piece and encourage you to check out the rad stuff they’re publishing at http://armedpublishing.tumblr.com