The War Against the Machines: Should We Fear Automation?

– By Jacob Foxx –

This is one of the nightmare scenarios of a future dominated by machines. If they aren’t killing us or converting us into energy, they’re turning us into fat, lazy, ignorant slobs who have no understanding of the world or the technology that makes our opulent lifestyle possible. This is the dystopian world of WALL-E. Others see the machines as scabs, taking their jobs away or forcing their wages to historic lows. They argue automation is contributing to growing income inequality, placing an entire class of citizens in perpetual poverty. This isn’t a new fear. Centuries ago, a group calling themselves the Luddites trashed textile machines that replaced them in the factories. Is automation a threat to modern society? As more jobs are being done by robots or software programs, will we see a growing divide between those whose jobs are not yet eliminated and the others? Will it turn us into lazy slobs, spending our days playing video games, watching cat videos on youtube, or ranting on Facebook?

There are two sides to every issue, so I will try to give an objective look at both.

First, what are the pros to automation?

It has raised the standard of living for all socioeconomic classes. Automation contributed to mass production processes, lowering the cost of new goods to the point where any household may afford them. Some claim that only the 1 percent see the benefits of automation while the bottom get screwed but that isn’t exactly true. If you compare the standard of living for an impoverished family in 1970 to an impoverished family today, there is no comparison. Even those at the bottom are enjoying the benefits of low cost household goods and services such as internet access, air conditioning, refrigeration, cable television, and better medical care. If you go even farther back to the turn of the century, you see an enormous improvement in education, life expectancy, and quality of life.

According to the Luddites, we should’ve seen a wave of mass unemployment among the working class due to automation. It never happened. There has been no tidal wave of mass unemployment. People simply moved to other, better jobs. Automation allowed millions to leave the farms for the factories, and is now allowing them to leave the factories for work in the service sector. Many of the most dangerous, least desirable jobs are now done by machines. For those that grew up and mastered these jobs, it is little solace that they can now get a “better job.” It isn’t easy to start a new career after decades in a single job or profession. At the same time, most working today do not face the same dangers their parents and grandparents did on the job.

Not only were many of the older jobs dangerous, they were also tedious and repetitive. Factory workers standing on the assembly line often did the same set of tasks over and over. Having workers do repetitive, mind-numbing work for so long is inhumane and soul crushing. It was also inefficient from a global economic perspective. Imagine how many world-class musicians, artists, chefs, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs and inventors were forced to make car parts rather than apply their talents to more beneficial endeavors. For centuries, most human potential was lost in the fields and factories. Automation has allowed talented individuals to unleash their potential, and has played a major factor in the unprecedented technological breakthroughs of the past century.

Now for the cons of automation:

Poverty remains a fact of modern life, even two centuries after the industrial revolution. There always seems to be a class of citizens that are not reaping the full benefits of this golden age. It is true that the standard of living is rising for all, but it is unevenly distributed across the population. Those slowest to benefit are those that have seen their jobs eliminated by automation. Economies have been able to create as many jobs as are lost but are the new jobs really better? Lately that has not been the case. Median income is now in decline, and the poverty rate has begun to rise approaching pre-1960s levels.

One possibility is that automation is expanding too quickly, and economies are unable to generate new jobs fast enough. Or it may be that we’ve reached the inevitable conclusion of automation: that there are no more new jobs to be created. There simply is no more work to be done.

Let’s extend the current trend out a few decades. Let’s suppose millions of jobs become automated in the manufacturing, retail, and a few other service sectors. History suggests those workers won’t simply become perpetually unemployed, but it is very possible their new jobs will be remedial with little or no opportunity for upward mobility. Another possibility is that even those in the bottom bracket will be able to live comfortable lives of leisure. In other words they won’t need jobs anymore.

This is a plausible scenario given current trends. Every year, we seem to resemble the society of WALL-E more and more. We are getting fatter, with the obesity rate in America reaching new heights. Perhaps one day we will all be pushed along in chairs all day. We are also obsessed with electronic interaction rather than direct human interaction. In one scene from WALL-E, two guys are talking via a Skype program while sitting right next to one another. Kids are already doing this with instant messenger, while sitting in the same room. In the movie, when there is a problem with their ship they ask the computer to fix it. None of them have a clue how anything works. If the computers break down they’re doomed.

H.G.  Wells and Aldous Huxley have written about this possible devolution of humanity in their novels The Time Machine and Brave New World respectively. In The Time Machine, humanity devolves into small, feeble-minded, weak, childish Elois. Will our knowledge and skills atrophy in an era of movies, TV, video games, social media, internet porn, and cell phones? Brave New World also depicts the problem with technological bliss. The engineered humans of his novel are so obsessed with pleasure, they cannot see anything else. They don’t care how the world works as long as they’re kept safe and happy. Anything that gets in the way of pleasure is removed, or in some cases the person that gets in the way is murdered.

Dystopian writers see this opulent yet ignorant future as a potential tool for an all powerful government. The State gives the people distraction just to shut them up. All these boons keep the populace in a stupor, unaware to what the State is doing.

The post-apocalyptic genre foresees the Brave New World collapsing, forcing a weak and infantile humanity to face the real world once again. This has been depicted in The Walking Dead, Revolution, Station Eleven, and many other places. Many of its stories depict modern society being pulled back down to the stone age by a cataclysm, where all our impressive modern skills are useless. We’ve forgotten how to grow our own crops, or how to hunt and fish. Nature is a scary place, and there are few that could survive there. The question is one of adaptability. We may be capable of it, but increased automation is increasing the demands on us to adapt should everything go wrong.

So automation is going to make us unequal, fat, stupid, weak, and unprepared for the future. Right?

The inequality fear is real but only some countries are facing serious disparities in quality of life and income. Not all developed countries have enormous disparities in means. This suggests automation is not the primary factor in creating inequality. It is more likely bad public policy. Automation is certainly making some of us fat and stupid but not all of us. Obesity rates are very high in some regions but much lower in others, which suggests there are other factors at play here as well. As for weak and unprepared, that may be true. However, there seems to be a growing counter-cultural reaction with increasing interest in rediscovering basic skills. There remain numerous athletic competitions, interest in outdoors, and the growing appeal of “prepper” activities.

So far, these groups represent a small minority. Perhaps it’s not enough. Perhaps they are a dying breed. However, what about the growing popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories such as those referenced above? It seems we as a civilization are aware of these dangers, and some of us are making efforts to prevent it. Will we succeed?

It is difficult to imagine a modern society being utterly incapable of adapting to a changing environment given the wealth of knowledge we’ve accumulated. Never before has information been so widely available and in incredible quantities. When the machines start to break down, we’ll be in trouble at first, but as long as the “user manuals” are still lying around, we have a chance.

Overall, I do not think we should fear automation; we should embrace it. Thus far the benefits far outweigh the costs. While there are some troubling signs of devolution and entropy, it is hardly enough to conclude it is inevitable. At the same time our culture and values must keep up and adapt to the changes taking place. The dangers of becoming hopelessly dependent on technology and automation must be guarded against at all times. As long as we are prepared and remain vigilant, I think we will avoid a future like the one portrayed in WALL-E.

 

Jacob Foxx is the Editor of Prescientcifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.