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People and automation

I read this article with interest. I’ve noticed the creep of automated services in the last ten years. Who goes into gas stations any more, unless you need a candy bar. Given the fact that these machines are a fixed cost investment (as opposed to an ongoing expense, like labor), I expect to see more and more of these. When reading this article, what every employee has to ask themselves is ‘Am I an elevator attendant or a bank teller?’.

I remember reading a story in Analog, years ago, about a general purpose robot and the societal dysfunction it caused. These robots could do everything a human being could, but 24 hours a day, rather than 8. Of course, this caused riots among workers, afraid of their jobs being turned over to the robots. Luckily, workers’ organizations and employers were able to come to an compromise–businesses couldn’t own these robots, only people could. Businesses would rent them from individuals, who would thus be able to earn a living.

That’s science fiction for you: both the problems and solutions are outlined in black and white. What we see nowadays is greyer–more and more ATMs are installed, yet tellers are being hired. Robots aren’t general purpose (and humanoid)–they’re slipping into the mainstream industry by industry. People aren’t rioting in protest of robots–they’re traveling extra distance to use them.

But the issues raised are still the same. Every machine that replaces a person (or two and one half people) causes a very real impact on the bottom line of the employee. At the same time, if a business can cut its labor costs, it will need to do so (especially if its competitors are also heading down the automation path). These differences revisit the old labor vs. capital divide (wouldn’t Marx and Engels be proud?), and the answers aren’t simple (or completely known, for that matter).

(The same issues arise in offshoring, and Bob Lewis comments here (sorry, you have to register to read the article). He states that the labor and capital national economies have been coupled for a long time, but now are being decoupled. He doesn’t have any answers, either.)

Technology has been automating away jobs since the Industrial Revolution, if not before. Things have worked out fine in the past, but it hasn’t always been pleasant to live through.

I don’t see any substantive debate on the nature of labor disempowerment. Perhaps this is because “we’ve seen this before, and it has always worked out” or because it’s an uncomfortable issue (especially in an election year) or because “we don’t have any real leaders anymore” or because we’re all vegetated by the modern opiate of the masses? I don’t know whether labor will riot, but brushing the issue under the rug certainly isn’t going to help.