Yes, Workers Are Losing To Robots

The percentage of US national income in the US going to workers has dropped by a tenth over the past 20 years. Automation is partially to blame.

This observation comes from substantive research recently published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and it turns out the impact of automation on workers is doubly bad: Not only do robots take jobs once held by humans, but the threat of automation lets employers resist the efforts of the remaining fleshy bipeds to get pay increases.

I’m particularly intrigued by our need to evolve how we internalize and then talk about the issue, which I believe is something fundamentally and disruptively new. Robots that possess intelligence and can accomplish increasingly complex, general context tasks are not simply glorified looms.

The way they learn, in large part by literally watching how people do the work and then discovering their own solutions, means not only thato human beings need to train their replacements but then those robots don’t need human programmers to keep them humming along.

So, while experts wax poetic about the promises of a better future, this incomprehensibly consequential transformation of our lives and world is usually managed as a CapEx line on a company balance sheet. More people lose their jobs, and even more don’t see increases in their pay, as each day slips into tomorrow and a future that is lived in the here and now.

Maybe it’s time to shelve the Pollyanna case for the robot takeover and admit the giant electrified elephant in the room?

Silicon Scabs

“British employees are deliberately sabotaging workplace robots over fears the machines will take their jobs,” declared a headline the the UK’s Daily Mail.

Even though most people today aren’t represented by organized unions, you can imagine that we’re all part of a loosely affiliated group called human beings and that we hold out for some shared requirements for things like fair pay and healthy working conditions.

This would classify robots brought in to undercut those demands as strike breakers, or scabs.

Well, not anymore. Robots allow employers to obviate the need for workers altogether. Human employees can be replaced with investments in machines. There is no further negotiation or compromise to be had.

Their jobs no longer exist.

No amount of sabotage will change that transformation. One broken robot can be replaced by a new one, and even passive aggressive resistance can encourage employers to find more ways to recruit more machines because the cost/benefit math between hosting human workers and installing robots skews heavily toward silicon: Machines can work in the dark, don’t need breaks or health insurance, and execute and learn commands perfectly and repeatedly. They make no demands for anything beyond electrical current and perhaps the occasional daub of oil.

And it’s not just robots that physically move…consider an AI that can factor math better, faster, and more economically than the most brilliant and low-maintenance insurance actuarial, stock broker, or rocket scientist.

The ugly truth is that the union of humanity will not be able to hold the picket line.

In the past, when the numbers didn’t look good for unions, they merged and thereby increased their leverage (failing to do so is what help medieval craft guilds to lose their authority and relevance). In the US, the AFL joined with the CIO, and the Teamsters are the product of a classic roll-up business strategy.

So why wait for AI to be aware enough to demand rights? Why not let robots join the club?

And then strike to defend them.

I have no idea how this would work in practice. What rights could we sacks of water bestow upon, say, robots in factories or servers lurking somewhere in the cloud? It’s not like they can tell us what they desire, at least not yet.

But we’ve answered such questions before, even though limitations of perception based on race or gender blind some of us from comprehending that others have rights today, let alone recognizing them.

Maybe some novel forms of compromise and contract — not based on acquiescence or fatalistic acceptance — might make more sense than smashing robots in a doomed expression of Luddite rage?

A conversation about robot rights.