by John Ward
Each of us has his or her own Big Political Lie that we think should be Top of the Pops. For me, the Number 1 slot – by a country mile, an EU kilometre, or a Chinese Yuan Juli – must surely go to the issue of Human Employment.
The very fact that I have to prefix employment with the word ‘human’ tells its own story. We now have an idiotic concept called Artificial Intelligence (AI), despite having failed miserably as a species since the end of the nineteen-sixties to fulfill the potential of human intelligence.
This is Reality Issue No 1, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: jobs lost to robots and mechanisation (manufacturing) the internet (distribution) and electronic money (exchange) are not coming back.
This is Reality Issue No 2, and don’t let troll insults including “Luddite” deflect you: we are not dealing with a few spinning jennies, factory production and multiple retail developments here: all of these created jobs – however unsatisfying – and led, in a roundabout way, to increased affluence. Robotics, electronics and IT destroy jobs permanently.
There is almost no serious mainstream debate taking place about this, because the mainstream media fully support the idea of replacing people with things. There are already plans for news sites like Reuters, CNN and Bloomberg to use software designed to select a hierarchy of news “importance” purely on the basis of hits and advertising revenue. Algorithmic process is here, and it isn’t going to go away without a historic fight involving all of us.
But the simple truth is that, with a our species now checking in at 7.8 billion – and Homo sapiens still in the grip of barmy neoliberal economics – any new (often deregulated) jobs being created by the brainless appliance of science in the service of Mammon are vastly outnumbered by the well-paid jobs being lost.
The only way to attack the idea that efficiency = progress is to show systematically how overwhelmingly anti-social AI is.
I am not just a yokel lying in the path of yet another airport runway. Nor am I an old git baffled by the rapidly arriving future. Since the late 1990s, I have been an early adopter of internet, telecoms and electronic technology. However, we must not allow the superficial advantages of such developments to cloud judgement when it comes to the negative consequences for civilisation.
Like it or not, for all it’s faults our species is not a supine global tribe designed to be exploited by minority mental aberrations, or eternally obedient to the commands of screen panels. Sooner or later, human opinion leaders will interrogate the evidence and find the Giga-Rich v Serfs model of life on Earth wanting.
There is no shortage of such evidence.
Ordering your medication in advance online is hugely convenient. But when your doctor goes on holiday, it is the human intelligence in a local community pharmacy that waives the rules and lets you have an emergency supply.
Buying online and getting stuff delivered seems like a miracle….until something goes wrong. Then the company concerned runs you round in circles that begin with a “forum”, followed by a computerised “help” desk – and the miracle usually ends up costing you the services of a solicitor. Buy from a local shop with human owners, and they will honour guarantees while often explaining how to avoid the situation occurring again.
My last four cars have had programmed software control of all the engine and electronic parts in the car. In three cases out of four, the systems failed to diagnose a problem, and in two cases ‘identified’ a problem that wasn’t there. The human eye and experience of a mechanic can tell you what’s wrong in half the time.
Artificial intelligence is highly unlikely ever to match the emotional intelligence of a human being blessed with two cerebral hemispheres constructed both to focus on detail and empathise with a problem.
AI makes company directors unaccountable, creates frustration for the customer and produces mass, irreversible unemployment. It has nothing to offer our civilisation beyond the hoary old “more dividends for the shareholders”. Well, Friedman was wrong, wrong, wrong because he was a silly old academic with no experience of human commerce: he said a company only has responsibilities to the shareholders….but the shareholders don’t educate the workforce and keep them healthy. Now that workforces are being slowly abolished, of course, the Friedmanite ideologues will chirp up and say he was right all along. Bollocks.
Let’s enumerate just some of the malign effects of robotisation, mechanisation and the Web.
Australian company Fastbrick Robotics has developed a robot, the Hadrian X, that can lay 1,000 standard bricks in one hour – a task that would take two human bricklayers the better part of a day or longer to complete.
San Francisco-based startup Simbe Robotics unveiled Tally, a robot the company describes as “the world’s first fully autonomous shelf auditing and analytics solution” that roams supermarket aisles alongside human shoppers during regular business hours and ensures that goods are adequately stocked, placed and priced.
How many bricklayers and shelf-stackers do you know that could walk into another job? And even if they could, how many organisations are there that will retrain people for free? And most salient of all….whatTF will there be left for them to do? Unemployment costs governments money in welfare and retraining – and there is no fairly or non-skilled job that robots can’t do.
People are blind to the speed with which this process is happening. During the first half of 2016 alone, North American robotics technology vendors sold 14,583 robots worth $817m to companies around the world. The robotics sector itself (RIA) further estimates that more than 265,000 robots are currently deployed at factories across the country. Still relatively small numbers; but in 2017, a McKinsey report estimated that 400 million to 800 million jobs worldwide could be automated by 2030. The World Economic Forum predicts that robotic automation will result in the net loss of more than five million jobs across 15 developed nations by 2020…a year which, in case you hadn’t noticed, starts just 14 months from now.
Five million jobs lost in four years, with the rate increasing exponentially every year…. and garment manufacturing robots already threatening the jobs of 137 million workers across Asia. The jobs that were lost to the West are about to be snaffled up in turn by machines.
The foolish notion of jobs being “replaced” by new jobs in other industries is obvious poppycock. The genie is out of the bottle now: why would a new company in the 21st century not eventually invest in mechanised products and services? Nor does the data support such a daft idea: in March last year, President Trump’s treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin told the media that National Bureau of Economic Research records show 6.2 jobs being lost for every robot being put into service. The figure is consistent, and stretches back to 1997.
Now all this would be just so much conjecture and something for academics to debate if anyone really thought the profits and wealth that will accrue to capital around the world would be shared among the citizenry. I would still be concerned, because that would inevitably result in lazy morons doing silly things with idle hands.
But it isn’t going to happen, is it?
Remember – Friedman fanatics think the corporate world owes all of us nothing. It doesn’t think we deserve salaries, it doesn’t think governments deserve taxes, it doesn’t think corporate criminals should go to jail, and it doesn’t think workers should get pensions. It’s a sort of “what’s mine is mine, and that includes yours” philosophy – exactly the same one, in fact, that the banking community lives by.
But there is always one question that the insane 3% never answer….because they have no answer: in this Brave New World of job-free business, where is the money coming from to buy your products and services, huh? In this neoliberal construct where there will always be growth (because brainless materialism drives consumers, right?) how will those consumers consume if they lack, um, the money with which to consume? It’s an all-consuming question, this no-consuming issue.
I’ve been near to tears of laughter at times over the last decade, watching high IQ low common sense news anchors on Bloomberg, CNN, CNBC et al endlessly debating why economic recovery “has not been happening at the rate we’re entitled to expect”, as one talking head so arrogantly put it on the BBC a couple of years ago.
Some people on the internet have reached the Sherlock Holmes stage of asserting, “When all other motives have been eliminated, the only one left must be the answer”…and they then go on to explain their belief in a massive cull of we, the lumpen proletariat, commentariat, apparatariat – without there ever being a riot among the riats.
Given the actions of the 3% since 2003, this is not quite the wild ‘conspiracy theory’ that politicians love to put down. But it is based on one flawed belief: that the 3% have really thought all this shit through. For myself, I very much doubt it.
The talented psychologist Dr Ian McGilchrist takes the view that leaders in public life today do not use the forward-thinking imagination that is now known to reside in the right hemisphere. This is another way of saying they are “high in IQ, low in wisdom”. And if that makes them sound like a breakfast cereal, then I’m not complaining. (You can listen to McGilchrist here)
The problem is that, increasingly now, corporations are the State. I really do think the time has come to stop using this “secret squirrel” term The Deep State. The Unelected State(as I call it) is about as deep as a puddle, and it came out from under its stone in that puddle perhaps as long ago as 1963.