What if I told you that the only way to compete with countries that employ low-cost labor was to bring back slavery? Slaves work at a subsistence level and can be discarded when they are no longer needed, so they make for a very low-cost, flexible workforce that can perform the tasks that are least desirable. What if slavery were the only way to maintain the standard of living that most of us have come to expect? Would you agree, assuming you were guaranteed to be part of the free class?
What if the slaves were robots? Whew, I’ll bet you thought I had really lost my mind! Of course, you’d agree! They are just machines and they can be made to do anything. God certainly never said anything about doing unto machines as you would have them do unto you. It isn’t even one of the three laws of robotics.
I’m really looking forward to retiring once the robots can do all my work for me. I’m a little worried, however, about who is going to pay me to not work anymore. My government retirement could be in jeopardy if the tax base shrinks from the effects of rampant unemployment. My private pension and 401K may similarly evaporate if the stock market collapses under the strain of rapidly falling company revenues due to the shrinking base of employed consumers. Social security will not work if the number of human workers contributing into the payroll tax system falls sharply. Unemployment insurance has a short time limit and is paid for by employers that may no longer need employees. Welfare, at least in the United States, is, well, just so sub-par! And charity can only cover so many people. So, where will the money come from as employment continues to fall?
I suspect I may be among the last generation of humans who ever has to work his whole life and save up enough to actually retire. My kids will probably soon be unemployed or have shorter work weeks or an early retirement and my grand kids may never have to work at all. Eventually, everyone will enjoy the huge benefits of automation and will be able to work less (or not at all) and play more (or all the time). But what will happen during the transition between the human economy and total automation? It is during this transition, which has already begun, that humans will suffer from a steady increase in technological unemployment with no adequate social safety net. The workforce participation rate is already at a 36-year low of only 62.8 percent, with over 92 million Americans out of the work force. Ironically, as more people stop looking for jobs and drop out of the work force, the unemployment rate appears to go down even when the number of jobless people is climbing. This is what is happening right now.
Robots are already performing a great deal of simple, repetitive work that unskilled and even skilled humans used to do. Robot manufacturers are now starting to produce industrial robots that can learn simple tasks quickly and easily and can do so at a cost that is just as low as foreign low-wage workers. This means that jobs formerly outsourced to low-wage countries like China can start to move back to the United States. This movement has already begun.
But that doesn’t mean that American workers will necessarily benefit from those jobs. Companies that move manufacturing back to the US by investing in automation will require fewer jobs, and those jobs may not necessarily pay well if there is too large a supply of workers. Remember that thing called supply and demand? It doesn’t just apply to the junk we buy–it applies to us too.
Even if the robots are produced in the US, and there is no assurance that they will be, those design, manufacturing, and maintenance jobs will be few in number and may still not pay as much as we may expect, depending on the worldwide supply and demand for engineers and technicians. The whole point of automation is to reduce overall costs and/or improve performance, which is the same objective of global outsourcing. Not only will automation reduce the cost of providing products and services, it will also drive down the cost of labor worldwide as Americans have to compete with Chinese, Indian, and other workers worldwide who are able use the same technologies to do even more jobs remotely.
Imagine a highly automated McDonalds, where orders are taken by computers or people working from an Internet-connected site overseas, and where all the food is produced and delivered by routine robotic processes. Maybe it will need one human to clean up any messes that arise or handle unhappy customers. Imagine more and more vending machines that can prepare real, fresh, hot food. This is coming. Soon. Actually, it is already here.
Robots require nothing more than power and maintenance if they are well designed (or easily trained). They do not demand raises or benefits and they have no desire to be treated any better than anyone else. When you no longer need them, they can be destroyed and will not resist. They are the perfect slave army, but is that good for the people who don’t own the army? The development of robotics will continue to progress as long as they are economically viable, which means as long as they can do a job less expensively or better than a human. Humans will have to find other jobs, but we aren’t all needed to manage the robots.
Most futurists believe that new jobs will be invented that we can’t even conceive of yet. Two hundred years ago, before the industrial revolution, 70 percent of American workers worked on a farm. Automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of those jobs, but new technologies created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields. The industrial revolution created millions of factory jobs, which the revolution in artificial intelligence and automation has begun to reduce. New jobs almost certainly will be created, but what will happen when automated assistants acquire sufficient intelligence as well as fine motor skills to rival almost every new job we can conceive? Will there always be enough productive work that somebody would be willing to pay for? All of our jobs may soon be at risk due to the accelerating process of technological unemployment.
Where will it end? Theoretically, when there are no jobs left to perform. Robots are already stronger, more reliable, and more precise than us and have an inhuman ability to manage and use information in novel ways that enable them to perform many tasks far more efficiently than any human. Their limited dexterity, sensors, and ability to learn new tasks continues to improve, but for now, the best forms of automation are software bots working through the Internet, not in the form of physical robots.
What will the displaced human workers do when they are replaced? Theoretically, they will find something else to do, but that means they will need to constantly increase their skills or knowledge to outpace the development of intelligent machines. This is a losing game that will only hold off the inevitable for a short time. The jobs will start to narrow down to those people who are smart in a way that computers are not (yet) or have physical skills that robots do not. And imagine that you simultaneously have to compete for these limited kinds of jobs with low-cost humans in third world countries!
Strength and dexterity will cease to be valuable human skills. Ironically, however, current robots are unable to duplicate many forms of manual labor even though they can already perform tasks that require a high degree of human intelligence. Many knowledge workers, such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants, may actually be at greater risk of losing their jobs before gardeners, plumbers, electricians, and others with trade skills that require dexterous manual labor. While intelligent machines cannot perform all tasks that professionals can perform, they can do enough of the work to make one such professional far more productive than a whole office full of them were before, thus reducing the need for as many humans. Even robot management will probably be delegated to an advanced model of management bots, thus eliminating yet another type of human job.
Truck, bus, and taxi drivers will be replaced by self-driving vehicles while retail and office workers of all kinds will be replaced by, or if they are lucky, paired with machine-based assistants. I suspect that most human jobs will require the ability to manage machines and use them to accomplish tasks more efficiently. Office jobs will benefit from automated assistants, but they will mostly consist of network-based assistants rather than physical machines that walk around. They may work with you or on your behalf or in place of you to accomplish tasks like assembling data, sorting it, reformatting it, analyzing it, and making recommendations or taking action. Many home appraisals are accomplished partly or mostly by automated systems now and their capabilities will continue to improve.
What will people do when the unemployment ranks swell and they get desperate? Surely, women will always be able to fall back on the oldest profession, no? Not so fast. I’m betting that the market for realistic, humanoid sex robots will take off just as quickly, if not faster, than the Internet porn industry. The worldwide demand for sex is so strong that entrepreneurs will seize on any technological advance that they can apply. Robots will do anything, remember? Anything. It will be hard to compete with that once they are good enough. Only the most beautiful, clever, and charming women will stand a chance, until, that is, we can make androids that also act like a real woman in every way.
But that is actually a good thing, as it is probably the only technological advance capable of reducing the current global sex trade, which some believe has enslaved millions of women and children. Some estimate that prostitution is a $100 billion industry. Government-sponsored research from 2006 estimated that 800,000 people were trafficked across international borders, but many more were kept within their own countries. Sex trafficking is a huge global problem, so we should actually welcome anything that can be done to reduce the demand for sex. Law enforcement alone has clearly not been able to crush this criminal industry. Unfortunately, sex machines will most certainly face an extremely hostile public reaction and a political response. There is nothing illegal about having sex with a machine, but I’m betting that some legislator will try and make it so. Time to stock up on your special toys! They may soon be considered illegal paraphernalia!
Even security jobs will move to automated systems that are theoretically immune to bribery or corruption, though not necessarily to hacking. Intelligent surveillance systems will watch our every move, tip-off security bots or human police, and will start to reduce the amount of shoplifting and other crimes that currently cost consumers so much. Hello Robocop model #1984! This will be great for businesses and honest consumers, but will shut down the options of last resort that some people use to provide food and shelter for themselves. It isn’t that I’m in favor of crime. But when automotive security systems became more sophisticated, criminals resorted to more violent means, such as carjacking. Will automation make crime harder to get away with but also force criminals to become more violent? Or will criminals just get more sophisticated, like current-day hackers, and start using their own robots to help them pull off crimes?
Unless we come up with a better way to provide a safety net of public assistance to a rapidly increasing number of desperate, technologically unemployed humans, we’re going to have a big problem that the new robocops will not be able to solve.