Two articles showed up in my feed this week both dealing with the impact that automation is having and will have into the future on the workforce and humanity as a whole. Almost everyone can point to a gadget in their house, car or workplace that automates something they would rather not do. From the lowly dish washer to the bossy vehicle GPS to the copier/sorter/stapler/expresso maker, there are plenty of examples of machines that have automated tasks that make us more productive. But both of these articles ask the question: what happens when jobs that people want to do are automated?
The first article, from the NYT, is a wide ranging post covering everything from automatons in literature from ancient Greece to futuristic sex bots (seriously – read it!). It appears, at first glance, to be rather “light”, but it concludes with a pretty important thought that is often left out of this discussion:
More to the point, how will we power that future? Every modern robotic form that exists, and every one still to come, depends on a supply of cheap energy. If the energy disappears, so will the robots. And, to a large degree, so will we, since the lifestyle we have built and come to depend on floats on a sea of electricity. Hephaestus’ bronze giant was powered by the ichor of the divine gods; we can’t use that, but we need to think up another energy source that’s both widely available and won’t end up killing us.
This is one of the constraints not often discussed in either the optimistic or the skeptic view of automation: we’ve been living on millions of years of stored sunlight for the last century and a bit – that can’t continue, so when that ride is over, where will we get the energy to power all of this automation? Of course it’s true that automation can be used to be more energy efficient. The long term question is can it be so efficient that it can run on current sunlight only?
The second article, from the Institute for the Future, is a dense review of a number of data points (all footnoted / sourced) that point to a future where automation reduced the overall number of good paying jobs available. While the data and the analysis in this article is quite good, the story it relates at the end had the most impact on me (although I also quite like the story about the origin of the term Luddite – etymology is fascinating!):
This is where the economics get weird: It’s said that Henry Ford II once showed Walter Reuther, the leader of the United Automobile Workers, around a new automated car plant. “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues,” said Ford. Reuther quickly replied, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?” Many companies I’ve spoken to are focusing growth on emerging markets, in South and Central America and mostly Asia. In many of these places, the middle class is actually growing. But as we’ve seen, in the long run, that’s not a sustainable strategy for anyone.
This is, in addition to the energy question, is another of the big long term questions: if we automate almost everyone out of a job, who will be left to buy the things that the automation is creating? Reuther asked the question in the middle of the last century and there are still no good answers.
Here’s my take based on what you accept as being true:
- If you believe that all human needs and desires can be fulfilled by automatically manufactured items, then the education path is the only viable escape. There will always be “something” to do and the person that has the right skills (not necessarily always the most education) will get those positions. Just make sure the skills you are learning actually line up with something the market will demand in the future (don’t get educated for “yesterday’s wars”) and avoid the debt trap that most post secondary education has turned into.
- If you believe that there is more to life than mass produced (or even mass customized) everything, then another path opens up to you. Become an artist, a designer, a farmer, a musician, a builder, or a carpenter. While automation is a fairly recent trend, the value people place on locally produced items that have “soul” has persisted for millennia. The slow movement and the eat local movement are scions of a reawakening of the need for connection as part of consumption.
- If you go one step beyond the previous, and believe that its not consumption that should define us (I know, strange thought to most Western minds…and increasingly Eastern minds as well, sadly), then the swell of automation doesn’t really matter one way or the other since (so far) you can’t automate virtue.
The old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” comes to mind when I think about where automation will take our species in the next 100 years. I suspect, that like every other “scary” technology before it, that automation is neither innately bad nor good – rather its what we decide to do with it that makes it so.