What’s white, cheap, and doesn’t pay taxes in Taiwan? Me? Nope.The future? I hope not. But you’re schmart if you guessed the Uber ride-hailing service. It’s a super popular app: freedom from betel nut, 100NT cheaper, and schmartphone friendly. The future will be good because of innovations like Uber! Too bad it got kiboshed for being totally illegal, say betel-nut-phobes and technophiles alike, hoping that it returns to the streets of Taipei,
But Uber ain’t blowing up my skirt, if you know what I mean. And it’s not just because I have a fondness for Taiwanese cabbies. It’s also because I’ve come to the conclusion that technology is not always our friend, dear reader. Not when one is on the wrong end of the better weapon, for example, or on the wrong side of history, and not when corporate profits and shareholder value mean getting rid of your job. Case in point: Uber. “First, they came for the taxi drivers!”
Then they’ll come for your job. According to a 2013 Oxford University study, as many as 47% of American jobs could eventually be replaced by automation. Other sources estimate up to 50% unemployment in 30 years. Factory workers, replaced by industrial robots, you think? Yes, of course. That’s been happening for decades. But also drivers of all sorts.Uber’s real plan isn’t to provide a new system where more presentable human drivers in shiny app-summoned-cars replace grumpy old men in beat up cabs. It’s going to use self-driving cars to replace human drivers altogether. Within 20 years, most commercial fleet drivers will also be replaced. (That’s a 10-4 good buddy!) Airline pilots will be next. But wait - computers can’t do that! Wrong verb tense English teachers! They couldn’t do that. Now they can. And a lot of your jobs will soon have been replaced, in the future imperfect. Not only will live video technology and 5G VoIP upgrades mean that you will soon be competing online with all the great unwashed native speakers of the West, but AI enhanced learning will diminish the value of the human teacher to that of a bright-eyed greeter. We may always need human doctors, but we may not need them as surgeons or diagnosticians. Robots can perform delicate surgical procedures more precisely and safely than human hands. Intelligent agents sifting through terabytes of “big” medical data can cross-reference your symptoms better than any human brain.
Clean out your desk and go home! You're free!
The simultaneous increase in the sheer amount of data, the ability of computer networks to store/analyze/transmit/search it, the sophistication of AI agents to use the data appropriately, and the physical capacities of sensors and robots to perceive and manipulate objects, means that this so-called “4th Industrial Revolution” will be totally unlike any of the others. In past revolutions, the displacement of workers by technology led to their reemployment doing things that machines couldn’t: move, perceive, manipulate and think. Those days are gone. Think, in your lifetime: scanners, printers, fax machines, cell phones, GPS – things that made you more efficient at your job. But next we will all see the onset of devices and systems that are more efficient than you at the thinking side of the job. There won’t be a “thinking job” for you to migrate to. If there is, there’ll be 1000 other people who want it. Nor is there another New World to colonize.
Robots and AI aren’t just becoming more efficient, they also don’t need unions, good working conditions, vacations, salaries, pensions, or health insurance. And they are getting cheaper and better every year.
The “end of employment” will set us free, we are told, to do higher things. Like write poetry and debate the soul in neo-renaissance communes in the forest? Or to get drunk under the bridge along with the taxi drivers, speechwriters, economists, historians, reporters, technical writers, copy writers, translators, models, cooks, construction workers, accountants, and models, to name but a few? Whatever makes the boss more money, I expect.
But who is going to buy all the products and services if we don’t have jobs? Don’t worry buddy! There will be lots of cheap stuff for oompa loompas like us. If a slum dweller in Manila can afford a cell phone, don’t worry, you can too! Some techno-utopians argue that things will get so cheap that you won’t need much money. But while wages have been stagnant for 15 years due to automation and offshoring, food prices and real estate prices have been going up for decades for the most basic of reasons: increasing demand, especially for things like meat. Futurists create wondrous visions of remote work from cheap 3D-printed homes, as well as super-efficient food production in vertical farms. Ant burgers in the trailer park? Or syntho-steak under the pine trees? Same answer as above.
Other futurists tout a “basic human income”. (It’s already happening in Finland!) We won’t need jobs because we’ll get super welfare. Party at my place! But that’s hard for me to get my head around too. Let’s assume 50% unemployment in the year 2050. First, that’s a huge hit to the tax base. But anyway, for the USA, let’s assume that 50% of the population – workers and their dependents – needs an annual basic human income of 12,000 USD (2017 adjusted) per person. 200 million (2050 estimate) people X 12k = equals 2.4 trillion USD per year, about four times America’s current military spending and 2/3 of the overall budget. Good luck getting that one through Congress!
But perhaps you think I am paranoid, dear reader. Even in this age of weakening democracy and rising inequality, there’s no way the uber rich would ever throw us decent middle-class hobbits under the bus! We’ll all be taken care of by our corporate overlords. There will be a bright new techno-world waiting for us. It’s the magic of the markets. So get into your shiny Uber and enjoy your ride to the future.