Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Future of the Working World

"While earlier industrial technologies replaced the physical power of human labor, substituting machines for body and brawn, the new computer-based technologies promise a replacement of the human mind itself, substituting thinking machines for human beings across the entire gamut of economic activity. The implications are profound and far-reaching. To begin with more than 75 percent of the labor force in most industrial nations engage in work that is little more than simple repetitive tasks. Automated machinery, robots, and increasingly sophisticated computers can perform many if not most of these jobs. In the United States alone, that means that in the years ahead more than 90 million jobs in a labor force of 124 million are potentially vulnerable to replacement by machines. With current surveys showing that less than 5 percent of companies around the world have even begun to make the transition to the new machine culture, massive unemployment of a kind never before experienced seems all but inevitable in the coming decades. Reflecting on the significance of the transition taking place, the distinguished Nobel laureate economist Wassily Leontief has warned that with the introduction of increasingly sophisticated computers, 'the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors'."
Jeremy Rifkin: The End of Work ... The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era
Adept Robotic Arm arranging chocolates in boxed assortments
Robotic Arm arranging chocolates in boxes.
Photo courtesy of Adept Technology, Inc.
Much of the work, particularly with blue-collar jobs in manufacturing plants as well as sales, service and administration that have always represented the tedious application of repetitive tasks have been gradually and increasingly outsourced to machines. This has been an inexorable process. Jeremy Rifkin wrote his book on Technology, Jobs and Your Future two decades ago. Since then, the problems in diminishing employment for human beings, which electronics, computerization and robotics have steadily taken over has only increased, and exponentially.

During economic hard times, when businesses begin to struggle, employers tend to replace workers with forms of artificial intelligence (AI). And in the world of labor and a living wage as compensation for time and effort in production of one kind or another, men, once the mainstay of production and employment in all sectors of commerce and manufacturing, are more vulnerable than women to the conquest of automation, as are the younger workforce demographic.

Robotic Arm arranging chocolates in boxes.
Photo courtesy of Adept Technology, Inc.

There is no complete agreement between economists as to whether computerization will replace most human efforts, performing the full-time work that people once relied upon to 'make a living'. But it does seem that society is re-structuring itself into a workplace scenario where few prosper within the advance of technology, at the very time when the majority of people struggle with a new reality of scarce employment opportunities
How Robots Work
The autonomous Urbie is designed for various urban operations, including military reconnaissance and rescue operations.   Photo courtesy NASA

Almost half of the decline in American economic output based on wages results from workers being replaced with technology and software, according to University of Chicago researcher Loukas Karabarbounis. Machines might be capable of performing half of all jobs in the United States within the next two decades, according to University of Oxford researchers, a sobering assessment for the future. At one time the telecommunications giant AT&T employed 758,000 people. Google, now the world's largest telecommunications company, employs in contrast, 55,000 workers at a time when its value is greater than AT&T's ever was.

The early warning that Jeremy Rifkin offered represented a jeremiad that few were interested in listening to, let alone taking seriously. Now that the robotic era has arrived and is steaming ahead, mainstream economists are studying the issue and specialty publications like the MIT Technology Review and journals like the Atlantic are tackling it head on. In North America, unemployment is associated with a loss of status, and a personal sense of lowered self-worth. Depressed people spend their time sleeping, or watching television.

Research has demonstrated that not working becomes a devastating situation for males in particular, more given to link pride in self with earning a living. Europeans, on the other hand, began adjusting to the new realities of the approaching future by working fewer labor hours, developing leisure activities that  represented meaning to them. North Americans, in contrast, continued working long hours, just as their parents had done generations earlier.
GE sees a future where robot rovers patrol facilities looking for problems and even carrying out simple repairs
GE sees a future where robot rovers patrol facilities looking for problems and even carrying out simple repairs

A robotic era with people working part-time jobs while a small proportion of society controls social wealth, increases an already serious social financial inequity. The political left and the right, in assessing the issues, appear to agree that a universal basic income accruing to anyone in society who for whatever reason qualifies as unemployed, under-employed and poor can represent a solution to an increasing problem. Society offering a financial award to its public to substitute for a living wage would see a redistribution of wealth.

It sounds bizarre, since people, most people, have an inclination to be useful, to work for their living. But if and when no opportunities to earn that living are available, the template for the social contract will have to be adjusted. The redistribution of wealth might be the only way to address this large and inevitable issue. It isn't just those on the political left, but even free-market libertarians such as Nobel laureates Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who advance the idea of a guaranteed income which government would be responsible for through taxation and allocation.

Robots welding metal van bodies on assembly line : Stock Photo

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