The Guardian had a rather interesting article, “Would You Bet Against Sex Robots. AI could leave half of the world unemployed.”
Interestingly, the part of the article the paper chose to focus on for the headline was a brief sentence about the possibility about sex robots. (Yes, I know I sort of did the same.)
Whatever, the basic thrust of the article is that so many jobs currently done by people will be taken over by robots and this will inevitably lead to job losses and inequality. Of course, I remember in the seventies, the discussion was how we were going to deal with all that leisure time as the working week dropped from forty hours because machines were doing so much of the work. Strangely, the predictions about machines becoming more ubiquitous was correct, but working hours and unpaid overtime in Australia have increased, and we talk about the need for a work/life balance. Instead of the ten hour working week, we have the recent Treasurer, Joe “poor folks can’t drive” Hockey suggesting that we need to work until we’re seventy, because well, there’s just no choice.
Now whenever people starting talking about economic choices and “inevitability”, I always think of that saying about only death and taxes being inevitable. As I’ve said many times, economics is about choice, although many people will try and convince you that what suits them is the only choice that one could make. For example, remember being told that a “superprofits” tax on mining would lead to companies picking up their mines and moving them off-shore. Well, no, not exactly, that’s impossible, but they wouldn’t stay here if they were taxed when they started making enormously profits. (I’m sure if Labor were still in power, we’d be hearing how the revised mining tax that “wasn’t raising any money” was responsible for all the coal mines going broke and the world-wide fall in commodity prices)
If you look at our recent history in Australia, organisations made conscious decisions to shift jobs off-shore, yet we’ve reacted as though the resulting unemployment is a surprise and either the fault of the government, or the unemployed themselves.
However, one doesn’t have to join the Occupy movement to see that the idea of machines doing more of the work doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the one percent getting richer, while a growing number join some unemployed underclass. Like all economic choices, there are any number of things we can do.
For a start, we can invent new jobs. I know that sounds simplistic, but the simple fact is that it is what’s happened over the past few years. One only has to realise that the FANG stocks (Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google) consist of three companies that didn’t exist twenty years ago and one whose recovery was just begining with the return of Steve Jobs. Obviously, the idea of being a professional app developer, webpage designer, social media manager or internet data analyst wouldn’t have occured to anybody prior to the growth of the Internet.
But our new jobs don’t stop in the technology sector. If you go back to the seventies when people were wondering whether there’d be a boom in the sales of sunscreen from all that extra time in the garden, the idea of working as a personal trainer or life coach would have been far-fetched. And while I’m sure that some people paid to have their lawns mowed fifty years ago, Jim’s hasn’t stopped at Mowing. And while these are not all Jim’s, we have mobile dog washes, smoke alarm checkers, energy saving advisers, educational consultants, zumba instructors, wind farm engineers, futurologists and a whole range of jobs we take for granted because they’ve been around since the turn of the century.
Even before the Industrial Revolution, new occupations have been created; the only difference is the pace of change. And it’s unlikely that there’ll be enough new jobs to absorb the all the workers displaced. In many cases, there’s going to be the need for a shift in the skill set which takes time and money.
Another thing which doesn’t completely add up when you start putting it all together is the idea that people will need to put off retirement because we won’t have neough people in the workforce to support them. While it’s more complicated than the simple point I’m making, does it seem strange to suggest that somebody needs to extend their time in the workforce because we can’t afford to pay them a pension even though a younger worker could potentially move off the the dole into their job?
Perhaps we should also start to question the idea that when a machine comes in, the old worker is treated as a reduntant piece of equipment and thrown on the scrap heap, and that all the benefits of the new technology go to the owner. Maybe redundant workers should be given a share of the increased profits from the more efficient system. Or is that socialism?
Of course if we had a system where the unemployed earned income as beneficiaries of improvements in the means of production would they still be lazy layabouts or would they now be the sort of “lifters” that Joe liked so much?
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P.S. Some you probably noticed Malcolm’s sweet little message on Facebook:
“When I first asked Lucy to marry me she said, ‘Let’s wait until we grow up.’ Well we didn’t wait long and now it is almost impossible to imagine, let alone remember, what it was like not to be together, so much so that I have a much clearer sense of ‘Lucy and me’ than I do of ‘me’.”
So to any gay people wishing to marry, I suggest you send him the following message:
“When I first asked my partner to marry me they said, ‘Let’s wait until the Malcolm Turnbull grows up and becomes PM because he believes in allowing us to marry’ Well we didn’t wait long and now he’s Prime Minister we still have to wait because he hasn’t quite grown up enough to stand up to anyone in his party and it is almost impossible to imagine, let alone remember, any time when he did so,”