The big 21st Century lie

I don’t usually use my blog to discuss politics but I feel I just need to speak out on this one issue. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, Conservative of Liberal, whether you live in the USA, Canada, the EU, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia or New Zealand, our politicians are all telling the same big lie.

To be fair, some may not be lying—they may just be ignorant: a frightening thought in itself. But here it is, the big lie:

“My policies will create jobs.”

For those of us following the current US election (fun isn’t it) we have heard President and Mrs. Obama and former President Clinton say, “Democrats will create jobs by…” We have heard Mr. and Mrs. Romney and Mr. Ryan and many others say, “Republicans will create jobs by…”

As an inveterate watcher of BBC World News, I see politician after politician, from all corners of the world, talking about job creation. Yet if you talk to the average, intelligent person, who has listened to all the arguments, she or he knows intuitively that job creation is a myth.

The fact is that employment is on a permanent, irreversible decline.

The reason: technology. As I write that word, I can hear the political chorus, “Technology creates more jobs than it displaces.” That has not been true for at least a decade, probably two.

What technologies render employment obsolete? Robotics combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Many will have seen the Cheetah robot which can outrun Usain Bolt. There are other robots like this nifty little device that are being purchased by the military. The current troubles in the South African mining business are, in the larger scheme of things, transitory. Within the next five to seven years, mining will be done by robots. A robot can work 24 hours a day, needs no safety equipment and will soon be serviced by other robots. Goodbye to the jobs of hundreds of thousands of miners and mine workers.

The technology that is being used by the US military to pilot drones is being eyed by airlines everywhere. Goodbye to the jobs of thousands of pilots.

When you combine robotics with artificial intelligence you get the Google car that drives itself. Fast forward less than ten years – no more taxi drivers, bus drivers or chauffeurs. As robotic cars become the norm, the incidence of traffic accidents and injuries will drop dramatically – oops, there goes a bunch of emergency service and hospital jobs.

On the subject of medicine, for years there have been computer programs able to diagnose more accurately than doctors. Only national medical associations have kept them from being used more extensively. But the real biggies in the medical area are the tiny nanorobots (or nanomachines) that are being developed to do things like deliver insulin to diabetics, destroy LDLs (bad cholesterol) in the blood stream and a wide range of other uses, even going so far as to manipulate DNA molecules. If you are a Star Trek fan, think Borg nanaprobes. Ooops, there goes a bunch of healthcare jobs.

Artificial Intelligence is used by banks. When you get  a letter through the mail from your credit card company saying that they have upped your credit limit, no human was involved in making that decision. Your bank’s computers used intelligent algorithms to decide that you  were worth it. Most financial transactions, including trading, are done by computers. The iconic image of all those folks running around on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange will soon be history and most of them will be out of a job.

To put paid to the myth of technology creating more jobs than it displaces, you need only look at computer programming. I use WordPress to power this site. Seven years ago I would have had to employ a programmer to do all of the things that I can now do without using any programming skills at all. As a software developer with many years of experience, I can tell you that the golden age of programming is in rapid decline. These days, software is used to write software. Computers are designing better, faster computers.

In every area where people are employed to work, technology is replacing humans. Even the classic employers in the service industry, restaurants, are changing. One restaurant doesn’t have servers. Customers are handed iPads with the menu and they make their own selections and pay the bill. The food is delivered to the table by minimum wage employees. Another restaurant has replaced the delivery people with robotic devices. I wonder when the first robotic chefs will make their appearance.

This may seem like science fiction but it is not. This technological advancement is happening now and is proceeding exponentially.

You can see this trend of replacing people in every area of employment. Mentally follow the trend and you can see that by the middle of this century, employment will be a thing of the past other than for a tiny percentage of the population.

The world’s politicians must come clean on this issue. They must stand up and admit that employment is going to disappear and do so quickly. The best and brightest minds on the planet need to consider how to restructure society for a world without work. Old left- and right-wing paradigms need to be abandoned, neither of them were built to operate in a rapidly approaching world without work.

Technology will advance and do so exponentially. Will it lead to a utopian or dystopian future? I hope for the former but I suspect the latter will prevail as politicians ignore the problem until it is too late.

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4 Responses to The big 21st Century lie

  1. Hi Robert. So many things are wrong with the concept of ‘jobs.’ Time was when a job was a gig. Someone hired a mason to build a wall. When the wall was complete, the job was over.

    The concept of people working as part of organized work forces evolved out of the industrial revolution and the rise of the large corporate entity. That evolution is continuing. I recall, as a young person, my father working for a large multinational company. He believed in the ethic whereby if he were loyal and hardworking, the company would take care of him. That all changed towards the end of his career. The company was taken over by a financier, profits seemed to soar as smaller foundries and other parts of the firm were sold. None of the old leadership remained. The old ethic vanished. In the 70s and 80s many of the best companies told their employees that they’d be treated well while employed, but future employment was not necessarily to be expected. Today, the corporate employment scene varies according to the ethic of the leadership and the available profits. People who are very swift and very smart can still do very well. Life can be very rough for ordinary people who think they want/need a job in a corporation. This is not new.

    For some of the trades, artists and artisans, and the professions, a job is still a gig. As companies are often happy to outsource some of the services that were once produced in-house, some people who once had jobs, now have a WordPress site and offer the same service for gigs.

    Some people (myself included) prefer to work this way. I can package my very unique set of skills and passions and offer that for hire so that I can both do what I love to do, and know that I am truly providing a real benefit to some individuals or organizations. I think this exchange for a person’s time for a consideration will continue. The exchange may or may not be within a corporate environment… and thereby be called a ‘job.’

    Actually, both you and I have the experience of thinking about what we love to do, and then who might be interested in the services that we provide. And then find a way to exchange our time for value (money). I don’t see that being automated.

    Technology is actually a benefit. I am using collaboration technology so that I can better serve clients; and lately, I can do that — almost face-to-face — in a manner that saves my client the cost of airline fares and hotel rooms. Without my technology, I could not do what I do now. Once I would have needed an office and staff. And travel. Yes, the jobs that might have supported those functions are not there, but the truth is that the job I have now created for myself would simply not have existed.

    The educational system is designed to funnel people into corporate jobs. For some, perhaps even many, that is a reasonable direction for life or a career. The question for a young person is: is this a practical and fulfilling direction for my life (not, ‘is this what I need to do to get ahead’)? Probably not enough young people are able to discover that there are some real alternatives to trying to climb the corporate ladder.

    I think you are right that technology will eliminate many jobs. Frankly, if a machine can do it better, it is a waste of the precious time of a human to have a person do that job. I’d say this is a good thing, not something to be regretted. If we measure the success of our communities and countries by the efficiency of the workers and the number of jobs, we may be missing some of the essential aspects of how we can interact, trade value, and make a living.

    In this context, I am concerned about the unbridled rise of the power of corporate entities, and the control of the world’s wealth in too few hands.

    That said, let me try to create some perspective. There are now over 7 billion of us alive. I can remember when, about 1960 there were 3 billion people on Earth. As we looked forward to the millennium we could imaging a whopping 6 billion people. There was talk of our cities crammed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. Today, in spite of famine, global warming, and ugly and oppressive political systems, we’ve never fed more people than now. Even now, if we could address our willingness to hurt — or allow to be hurt — our fellow humans, there is more than enough here for everyone.

    I suspect, if there is an way to cope, we will not discover it through our corporations, our politicians, our spiritual leaders or our military. It will be expressed by someone who can develop a clear vision of what is possible, and articulate it in such a manner that a huge population of the world will suddenly get it.

    Fortunately, I believe there is still time. This planet is still capable of nurturing us.

    • Robert P. French says:

      Robert, thank you for your insightful comment. I wholeheartedly agree with all that you have to say with one tiny exception: you say, “I think you are right that technology will eliminate many jobs.” In fact I strongly believe that it is most jobs—as in 70% or more.

      Dealing with the impact of that is where we need to apply our intellectual energy.

  2. Al says:

    Your comment is provocative and important Robert. Robert B’s reply is clearly well thought out. As I understand it robotic mining is already underway. The emerging machine to machine (m2m) systematization of the world has only just begun and it will displace more people, just like when fuel injection replaced that old thing called a carburetor. What are the long term implications of technology upon employment, no one can know. In my opinion there is no question though, there will continue to be big disruptions in the patterns of employment. These could become catastrophic, or they could lead to some amazing advances and a redefinition of the kinds of jobs that get done.

    One of the most in demand job in the US has recently been genetic counselling. Where was that 10 years ago? Notice how much check outs have changed at stores these days? What new occupations will be created? Don’t know. History and our contemporary world suggest that humans are very complex, adaptable, cruel, tribal, innovative, brilliant and dumb etc etc. So far we have muddled through. I hope for the sake of those on the planet today and those to come, we continue to muddle and tumble through.

    • Robert P. French says:

      Thanks so much for the comment Al. It is interesting that genetic counselling has become an in demand job. It is a job ideally suited to be performed by artificial intelligence. It has been observed during tests of medical diagnosis software that people tend to be more truthful about personal issues when questioned by a computer vs. a person—frequently yielding a more accurate diagnosis.

      Overall, I am not optimistic about our ability to muddle through. What might be the unemployment threshold before we are faced with violent revolution? 40%? 50%?

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