Automation is coming, but how will labor adapt?
April 19, 2015 10:57 AM   Subscribe

The Machines Are Coming by Zeynep Tufekci
Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, who’s in a mood to pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a coupon to nudge them toward a sale. In applications around the world, software is being used to predict whether people are lying, how they feel and whom they’ll vote for. To crack these cognitive and emotional puzzles, computers needed not only sophisticated, efficient algorithms, but also vast amounts of human-generated data, which can now be easily harvested from our digitized world. The results are dazzling. Most of what we think of as expertise, knowledge and intuition is being deconstructed and recreated as an algorithmic competency, fueled by big data. But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis.

A related line of thought via Jacobin, Ours to Master by Peter Frase
Dockworkers, of course, do not generalize well to the broader working class. Because of their strategic position at the choke points of commodity distribution, and their resulting ability to shut down large parts of the economy, they enjoy a strategic leverage that most of us lack. Moreover, they were ultimately unable to protect their bubble and have suffered a series of recent defeats. Winning a share of the fruits of automation for the rest of us requires victory at the level of the state rather than the individual workplace.

This could be done through a universal basic income, a minimum payment guaranteed to all citizens completely independent of work. If pushed by progressive forces, the UBI would be a non-reformist reform that would also quicken automation by making machines more competitive against workers better positioned to reject low wages. It would also facilitate labor organization by acting as a kind of strike fund and cushion against the threat of joblessness.

A universal basic income could defend workers and realize the potential of a highly developed, post-scarcity economy; it could break the false choice between well-paid workers or labor-saving machines, strong unions or technological advancement.
posted by p3on (47 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure that the basic premise of this article is true. It also doesn't matter. What matters is whether the all-too-fallible humans who choose between human labor and automation believe it's true. Or believe it's true enough to choose automation. And then what really matters is what we do next. I think the best case scenario is that automation is as good or better than human labor, and society goes out of its way to ensure that the jobs we've made go away provide a relief from work (yay!) and not a relief from livelihood (booo, we all die). Whereas the worst case scenario is that automation is an inferior alternative to human labor, and we figure this out just in time to watch civilization descend into chaos from the the comfort of the tick-infested sleeping bags that have become our homes because we as a people were too fucking stupid to understand we were undermining the fundamental tenets of capitalism so we, you know, didn't bother to do anything about it.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:10 AM on April 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Last one to the bottom gets replaced by a robot!
posted by sacramental excrementum at 11:15 AM on April 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


If implemented in the US, I can pretty much guarantee that the UBI would be a lot like minimum wage in that it would be so low that there is no way a person could actually survive on it.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:22 AM on April 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


So one of the things that articles about machine automation replacing human workers tend to miss is that although machines can replace the physical labor of humans, and can increasingly replace the intellectual labor of humans, no extant machine has a human capacity for suffering, or our unique ability to submit to pain. This is why, as more and more blue-collar and white-collar jobs have been replaced with machine labor, workers haven't stopped working or whatever. Instead, we've been moved into service jobs where our value to employers comes primarily from our ability to perform our own suffering — to scrape and bow for our betters, no matter how stupid their demands are, no matter how much we have to ignore our own needs to service their wants.

Until such time as machines can show real agony, and then (and this is important) mask that real agony behind a waitron's fake smile, we won't starve. Instead we'll continue to be employed supplying affective labor for the people who matter.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:34 AM on April 19, 2015 [37 favorites]


Once the corporations have replaced the workers, who will buy their products?
posted by double block and bleed at 11:35 AM on April 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


Is it just me or are we having this conversation ("what happens when robots can do all our jobs"?) about every month or so, prompted by different articles?

I'm not against the discussion per se, but I feel like I've said what I can say about it multiple times.
posted by emjaybee at 11:42 AM on April 19, 2015 [15 favorites]


db&b: Although the upper crust have only a finite (if extremely large) ability to consume goods, they have a more or less infinite appetite for affective labor. Corporations will (and, increasingly, are) staying in business by producing the following types of product:
  1. Cheap, shitty goods to keep workers alive.
  2. Ridiculously insane luxury goods to sop up some of the extra effective demand the rich can muster, and,
  3. Affective service labor provided by the spare workers who aren't needed for the production of tangible luxuries and workerfood.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:43 AM on April 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Is it just me or are we having this conversation ("what happens when robots can do all our jobs"?) about every month or so, prompted by different articles?

There's a computer in Boise that uses an online algorithm to churn them out quickly and efficiently.
posted by happyroach at 11:48 AM on April 19, 2015 [18 favorites]


If I had kids the question of what the hell they're going to do for a living would keep me up at nights.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:52 AM on April 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think we're going to see two different types of democide across the human population:

Wealthy societies will have a 'Japan' style democide, where aimless people without livelihoods still have a minimal provision of welfare services and internet entertainment, along with sophisticated panopticon system, to prevent effective revolution. These nations will see a steady Japan/Russia style demographic decay, as only the 1% can afford the premium of breeding.

Those societies less able to afford to bribe the lower classes into complacence, like India and the Phillippines, will suffer food riots, marxist revolutions, etc.

This, in turn, will provide lucrative disaster capitalism market for wealthy world PMCs to intervene with their drone armies.

The question of this century is going to be whether the human race goes extinct (global warming/ nuclear warfare) or whether it's just the 99% that go extinct.

When we automate the first CEO director of a corporation shall be the moment when we truly abandon ourselves to nihilism. When the corporations begin to run themselves, according to automated scripts, that will be the ending of our civilization.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 12:06 PM on April 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


Good training for the near-to-medium term: robot repair.
In the longer term robots will do that too.
posted by librosegretti at 12:13 PM on April 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


It also doesn't matter. What matters is whether the all-too-fallible humans who choose between human labor and automation believe it's true.

I couldn't agree more. In logic, truth can be diagrammed. IRL, truth is an agreement. Algorithms can be frightening, awesome even, in their ability to notice trends. But we humans a are all just random scatter, members of the herd. We can change our minds about any given patch of grass, but in the end we'll follow the herd to water.

The fly in the ointment is that we can be trained to love the Kool-Aid. We can be taught to love the Führer, we can learn to be blind to the Emperor's bony knees. At some point the paradigm closes the exits, and we go where the bus takes us.

Computers are not after our jobs. They are just tools: like, say, a hammer that pounds nails or heads with equal facility, sort of like the way machine-guns were supposed to make warfare so hideous that nobody would dare start another war, or nuclear weapons that were supposed to protect us against them, and them against us. Computers aren't what ought to be eyed with caution.
posted by mule98J at 12:14 PM on April 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


Those societies less able to afford to bribe the lower classes into complacence, like India and the Phillippines, will suffer food riots, marxist revolutions, etc.
[...]
When we automate the first CEO director of a corporation shall be the moment when we truly abandon ourselves to nihilism. When the corporations begin to run themselves, according to automated scripts, that will be the ending of our civilization.


tl;dr: first worlders need to support third world marxism or we're all dead.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:20 PM on April 19, 2015


A science fiction work that resonates, for me, with this article is Tevis' Mockingbird. Not so much the dystopia per se but that at some point what do we want, as humans, when we are truly free without labor? What if the machines will also reflect their makers' wants, frustrations and sins?
posted by jadepearl at 12:23 PM on April 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


You want a universal basic income? Vote Hillary.

8 years of Hillary -> 2 seats on the Supreme Court ( one of which is almost certainly Ginsberg).

1 extra vote on the left-> Overturning of Citizens United

Overturning Citizens United -> significantly mitigates Republicans' money advantages and paves the way for campaign finance reform.

Campaign finance reform means more competitive Democrats, and demographics will do the rest. You'll see an expanded soft welfare state which allows programs like a universal basic income to become politically plausible.

Tl;dr? Electing Hillary is step one of the path towards the United Federation of Planets.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:23 PM on April 19, 2015 [17 favorites]


As gingerbeer pointed out after I made a "vote Clinton, but save your money for Socialist Alternative" argument in the thread about Clinton's official announcement of candidacy, if you live in one of the hip states that are guaranteed to go to the Democrats, you aren't even required to vote for Clinton.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:30 PM on April 19, 2015


1 extra vote on the left-> Overturning of Citizens United

You expect Clinton, whose PAC received a billion dollars from Wall Street, to do anything to disturb the system that's making her powerful?

It's pretty clear that if left as-is the rich are going to use increasing automation to further enrich themselves and impoverish everyone else. If the machinery of the state can't be used to stop them, to genuinely spread the benefits of work relief to the population as a whole instead of just to the idle rich, the 99% won't just allow themselves to die off. Even the most oppressed peasantry will revolt if they are pushed close enough to starvation. It's in the interest of the oligarchy to allow more wealth to flow to the creation of a lower leisure class, it makes their position more secure.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:34 PM on April 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Good training for the near-to-medium term: robot repair.
In the longer term robots will do that too.


That's why I'm learning how to repair the repair-robots! I shall be dining on caviar!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:37 PM on April 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


From YCTaB's link:

For connoisseurs and collectors of rare and delicious fine spirits. Never settle for tap-water ice again. We'll keep your freezer adequately stocked with pristine Gläce Ice pieces for those special moments when you decide to open that unique single malt scotch or ultra-premium bourbon.

Spending a thousand dollars a year on luxury ice (which works out to $5 per luxurious ice sphere) is silly. But putting said sphere in your "unique single malt scotch"? Now that's just plain evil.
posted by Daily Alice at 1:13 PM on April 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Choose your dystopia... you can't really have both of these at once:

1. Humans are so expensive that it pays to replace them with machines
2. Humans are so cheap that no one can earn a living

To put it another way, if humans are all unemployed, than hiring one is cheaper than programming a machine to do the work.

The things that it pays to automate are expensive and repetitive work. Which is why factory jobs were a prime target. No job is safe exactly, but if your work is cheap and varied, it's probably not efficient to automate it.

Long term, the one thing people are really good at is making other people happy. Do you want bots taking care of your infants, or Grandpa? Probably not. Growth industry in 2100: personal servants, yoga trainers, gardeners, and feng shui consultants to the plutocrats.

Maybe the only way to get a better world out of all this is when someone realizes that management could be improved by replacing all the CEOs with robots.
posted by zompist at 1:13 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Even the most oppressed peasantry will revolt if they are pushed close enough to starvation.

It's worth remembering that most (all?) peasant revolts have been brutally put down. Peasants generally lack the weaponry and training of those they revolt against.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:29 PM on April 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


... which makes me think of how Reagan tightened up California gun laws after the Black Panthers started taking advantage of open carry.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:39 PM on April 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


If civil society breaks down, it's the ones with the guns who will be kings. Better practice doffing your cap and saying, "Yes, General."
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:44 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Once the corporations have replaced the workers, who will buy their products?

No reason machines can't do that too! I mean it's already happening on the macro scale, with humans increasingly redundant to the stock market. After we've automated production we'll naturally move on to consumption and close the loop.
posted by rodlymight at 1:56 PM on April 19, 2015


While I hate to interrupt a good circlejerk, most 1st world countries have fertility rates at or lower than replacement, and have large aging populations that have already started to exit the workforce. If anything, automation may be a good thing as labor demands go up.
posted by johnnydummkopf at 2:02 PM on April 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


wait, good for who? wouldn't rising labor costs be a good thing on the whole?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:37 PM on April 19, 2015


From zompist:

Long term, the one thing people are really good at is making other people happy. Do you want bots taking care of your infants, or Grandpa? Probably not. Growth industry in 2100: personal servants, yoga trainers, gardeners, and feng shui consultants to the plutocrats.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, you're right that there's no substitute for the human touch. But on the other hand, current political/social thought makes many of us reluctant to actually admit that we are employing (read as: exploiting) someone else to stock our pantry or wipe Junior's ass. I can't find it now, but there was recently an article I read about a meta-level app that will manage all your other outsourcing apps (TaskRabbit, etc) so that you'll never have to actually talk to, or interact with, the people who buy your groceries and stock your fridge. Instead, it's all arranged so that they fold your laundry and drop off your food while you're out of the house and then, like magical little elves, they disappear before you return. Thus sparing you any guilt at exploiting the contingent labor class.

So if we had robots to do the stocking and wiping in our house, robots that were free of the guilt-inducing stigma of being, you know, human, I kind of feel like we would do that in a heartbeat.
posted by math at 2:39 PM on April 19, 2015


I still hold that service employers are only partially driven by a desire for convenience, with straightforward (if, at times, sublimated) lust for power over other individual humans making up the remainder.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:46 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


>wait, good for who? wouldn't rising labor costs be a good thing on the whole?

Sorry, I meant good in contrast to the dystopian view that some people take. Increased labor demand could be better for laborers, but also maybe worse for employers, and consumers too if the cost gets passed down.
posted by johnnydummkopf at 2:48 PM on April 19, 2015


(Call it the Dominique Strauss-Kahn theory of late capitalist motivations.)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:51 PM on April 19, 2015


It's in the interest of the oligarchy to allow more wealth to flow to the creation of a lower leisure class, it makes their position more secure.

And it's a shame they're too short-sighted to understand this.
posted by uosuaq at 4:09 PM on April 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Algorithms, my grandson, will never get job A because mapped behavioral tendencies indicate he is more suited to strata C, due also to parental lifetime income, regardless of skill or education. Alpha strata membership via high skill and education set, service capability and appearance also requires significant liquid and tangible holdings to augment job aquisition status. Wait, that is how it is now, but the algorithms are growing in finesse and narrowing the chutes.
posted by Oyéah at 4:23 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Glad I'm an artist.
posted by ReeMonster at 5:48 PM on April 19, 2015


Artists are way easier to displace than engineers.

And : Computers Are Better at Flirting Than We Are
posted by jeffburdges at 6:02 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Robots Are Coming - "The scenario we're given – the one being made to feel inevitable – is of a hyper-capitalist dystopia. There's capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much, but having fun playing with its gadgets. (Though if there's no work, there are going to be questions about who can afford to buy the gadgets.) There is a possible alternative, however, in which ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form... It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership. The reason, the only reason, for thinking this better world is possible is that the dystopian future of capitalism-plus-robots may prove just too grim to be politically viable."

The new Hanseatica, now with robot dogs[*] - "But that's hardly the issue that the likes of Jaron Lanier and Andrew Keen have with the new digital economy. Their point is that we're all working for the likes of Google, Facebook and Instagram, and don't even know it. And since none of us are being compensated for the work we're doing this has led to a 'zero cost' illusion, disguising the true Animal Farm nature of the new digital hierarchy system. Furthermore, given that Google, Facebook et cetera would have little to no value without our continuous contributions, this puts these tech platforms in the position of modern-day exploitative landlords, living off rent extraction more than value provision. If that's true, the real cost to users is far from zero. In fact, if Keen and Lanier are to be believed, it's substantial precisely because it comes at the cost of our privacy, freedom and individuality. All the more so now that the landlord has a team of robot dogs to defend his interests."

Making Do with More - "Ensuring that the workers of today and tomorrow can capture the benefits of the information age will require us to redesign our economic system. Only by finding ways to put true value on the goods we produce can we sustain a middle-class society, rather than one of techno-plutocrats and their service-sector serfs."
As Larry Summers said... at the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project: "[if] technology [is] having huge and pervasive effects... you would expect it to be producing a renaissance of higher productivity [growth]..." that we simply do not see.

My preferred reconciliation is to note that the value provided by information-age commodities is very hard to track. Rival and excludable commodities lend themselves to a private property-based market economy. That they are excludable -- that their "owners" can easily keep others from making use of them should they choose -- gives an enormous amount of bargaining power to those who control the production-distribution-coordination nexus. That they are "rival" -- that two people cannot use the same one at the same time -- creates a demand to produce at enormous scale which gives an enormous amount of bargaining power to others in the production process who own factors that if not scarce now soon will be given the requirements of mass production.

As a result, money flows appear wherever utility and value are provided -- and those money flows are easy to track in national accounts. But non-rival, non-excludable information-age commodities are a very different beast: difficult to properly incentivize their creation, difficult to monetize their distribution, and difficult to track in national accounts. Thus a larger and larger wedge emerges between growth in utility as measured by true willingness-to-pay and growth in real measured national product.

But redesigning our economic system to properly incentivize and redesigning our national accounts to properly measure the completion of the ongoing information-age occupational revolution are only two of our four problems. In addition: Distribution must match effective demand to total income earned. And distribution must create a middle-class society rather than one of techno-plutocrats and their service-sector serfs.
Be Calm, Robots Aren't About to Take Your Job, MIT Economist Says - "If we automate all the jobs, we'll be rich—which means we'll have a distribution problem, not an income problem."

Politicians or Technocrats: Who Splits the Cake?[*] - "Monetary policymakers can no longer ignore the distributional effects of monetary policy -- and neither can voters and politicians."

Beneficiary of rent extraction says rents explain inequality - "The International Monetary Fund has estimated that the big US banks received possibly more than all of their profits from the implicit subsidies associated with being 'too important to fail', as opposed to actually producing anything of value."
posted by kliuless at 6:14 PM on April 19, 2015 [15 favorites]


The question of this century is going to be whether the human race goes extinct (global warming/ nuclear warfare) or whether it's just the 99% that go extinct.

william gibson wrote a book about it :P _the peripheral_!
posted by kliuless at 6:24 PM on April 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Humanity has entered those difficult teenage years.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:27 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just saw Ex Machina over the weekend. It's a lovely, poetic, scary look at one extreme of this equation.
posted by cleroy at 6:29 PM on April 19, 2015


I made a "vote Clinton, but save your money for Socialist Alternative" argument

LOL we had a Socialist elected to our city council, she served for about 10 years. Now she's the head of the downtown business development association and lobbies the city for tax breaks for businesses.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:43 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Increased labor demand could be better for laborers, but also maybe worse for employers, and consumers too if the cost gets passed down.

Who are these "consumers" who do no labor?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 5:50 AM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


If civil society breaks down, it's the ones with the guns who will be kings. Better practice doffing your cap and saying, "Yes, General."

I respectfully disagree. The kings will be the ones with the bullets.

Carry on with the cap-doffing, though.
posted by mule98J at 10:21 AM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


LOL we had a Socialist elected to our city council, she served for about 10 years. Now she's the head of the downtown business development association and lobbies the city for tax breaks for businesses.

If you stare too long into the abyss...the abyss stares back into you. This is the killer app of capitalism, it draws you in and assimilates you, like root beer.
posted by bartonlong at 10:40 AM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


I respectfully disagree. The kings will be the ones with the bullets.

This is a distinction without a difference.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:52 AM on April 20, 2015


Maybe technology will save us from itself: ultra-efficient manufacturing from 3D printing + unlimited raw materials from space mining -> ushers in a post-scarcity economy where the current rules of capitalism hold no sway? Ubiquitous automation need not be the only sci-fi trope to hang our future around.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:51 PM on April 20, 2015


All Power to the Makerspaces: "3-D printing in its current form could be a return to 'small is beautiful' drudgery, but it has the potential to do much more."
The promise and possibility of replication is not that of the robotic technological dystopias, which occupy mainstream fantasies and which implicitly involve a surrender of human autonomy.

Replication does not offer an end to necessary activity, but it does offer the possibility of a layer of life that approaches an everyday communism, one in which many of the necessities of life can be produced either in a home-based replicator, or (for more complex objects) a locally based production hub, an entity which would be both a collective locus of free activity and a client-based service.

[...]

Such a movement would face great opposition, but much of the power of that opposition is overstated, even or especially by sections of the Left. Intellectual property and knowledge enclosure have been cited, but the replication movement is now so massively open-source, and has such a variety of methods, that re-enclosure is impossible. Recuperation and recommodification by capitalism have been cited, with the examples of the “free” internet and cultural sharing. But the point of the replication movement is to create a production process that does not yield the possibility of profit, except at a vanishingly small degree.
also btw, from jacobin's technology & politics issue is their long-awaited cybersyn essay! but it's been paywalled :P
posted by kliuless at 3:11 PM on April 20, 2015


On a lighter note Stanislaw Lem's pharmacological dictatorship.
posted by TRAJAN at 4:29 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."


- Robert Kennedy
posted by newdaddy at 7:09 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


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