According to aspiring Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, automation will soon eliminate countless millions of jobs. It will leave few opportunities for workers who are displaced.
There’s no doubt that automation is eliminating jobs. At the grocery store, you can go to an automated cashier, scan your purchases, and pay with a credit card. (Virtue signal alert: I won’t use automated cashiers because I want to support jobs for humans.)
When you need to do your taxes or manage your finances, you can use TurboTax or Quicken instead of a human accountant. For your will, there’s WillMaker instead of a lawyer. To manage data, you get a database program instead of hiring file clerks. In warehouses and factories, robots have been replacing human workers since the 1980s. Even to interpret your medical tests, computers often do the job.
So in the short term, there’s no doubt that Yang is right. We see the results all around us.
But I wonder if the trend can continue. Our technological infrastructure is becoming so complex that it’s hard even for professionals to see all the interactions. It might be close to the limit of what human beings can manage.
If we blow past the limit, two possible outcomes are rather unappetizing:
- Skynet. ‘Nuff said.
- Technological collapse. And we’re suddenly back to using 19th century technology, unable to support anything even close to our current population.
What to do? That is the question. We’d better start working on the answer.
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This is a fascinating (and scary) topic.
It is beginning to appear that efficiency, instead of being one good goal among many, is on the verge of becoming the god of the 21st century. I fear that it will be a cruel one.
The big question I ask is will those who control the machines share with those who have been made obsolete by them. If not, the problem is obvious. If they do, I still see trouble because too many idle humans rarely ends well, even if they are well fed.
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Along those lines, I think Benjamin Franklin said — though perhaps he wasn’t the first — that idle hands are the Devil’s playground. I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems to me that living needs to be more than just having a pulse. People need to feel that their lives mean something, that they matter somehow. Yang makes the point, with which I’ve always agreed, that the economic system is to serve human needs, not the other way around. If human needs include work, then the system should be structured so that they can get it, even if it means some inefficiency. “The market” doesn’t exist in the abstract, but always under some set of rules, institutions, and social expectations — which lately are not coping well with the changes in technology.
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