Tortoise versus Hare
Mankind has run a marathon against automation since the seventeenth century. At first, the gains of the machines were easily ignored, since all of them still required human oversight to operate. Now, as the twenty-first century dawns, that’s no longer always the case. Alan Turing’s brilliant test to discern machine from human has long since been bested. The chips we invented to make our nuclear missile warheads lighter seventy years ago have now burrowed into every facet of our lives. Indeed, we have made so many personal devices that the ones we’ve scrapped are now a real pollution concern.
Think for a second about the jobs that have disappeared already due to automation. There used to be a lot more bank clerks than there are now. Telephone operators once had a very strong union. At one point—in the late 1920’s—it was forecast that by 1948 one out of every three working women in the nation would be a telephone operator. That future was avoided by the invention of the mercury switch, another human job reducer we ignored back then. Still, there aren’t very many telephone operators working today. Those remaining are a shadow of the population up to the 1970’s. Computers have replaced almost all of them, now that we’ve been taught to dial our own long-distance numbers.
There’s a razor factory in upstate New York that operates with just three employees, I’m told. The place is completely automated. As computers get smarter and artificial intelligence becomes more adroit, total automation of production will become the rule, not the exception. Manufacturing jobs have already been lost. The trickle will soon become a flood.
Most supermarkets today give shoppers the capability to “self-check-out” at computerized kiosks. How long will it be before most groceries are processed that way? How about drug store products and dry cleaning? There are already fast food franchises that operate without human intervention, and several restaurant chains now use tablets to augment their servers. How long will it be before humans vacate many of these jobs, in favor of smarter, cheaper machines?
White-collar job automation may take longer, but it is coming as well. Can bookkeeping and accounting be automated? Why not? How about legal contracts, and many medical examinations? The demand for increased productivity and the growing complexity of services will put intelligent machines in charge of many functions people now perform.
As this is written, the disaster of COVID-19 has officially put more than ten percent of the people who want and need to work in our nation out of a job. Many more are actually unemployed. Some of these jobs will never return, because the businesses that provided them will not survive. Perhaps now is the time to begin looking in earnest for new ways of maintaining a population where many can no longer support themselves with one or more jobs. That will mean more than simply giving away money. Our self-esteem as people is deeply rooted in pride at what we do, in “earning a living” and “working hard.”
“Full employment” has only been a factor in our civilization for a relatively short time, less than four hundred years. Before then, most free people were “yeomen.” They lived on a more powerful man’s land, and did what he told them to do. For this privilege, they were allowed a small plot of land and a hut or cottage of their own. Perhaps we are lurching toward the end to an aberration in mankind’s history, and some kind of automated feudalism will return.
I hope not. In the past, the promise of new land and human ingenuity lifted us from the mire of the past. This can happen again, but only if we begin working toward the goal with speed and direction. Otherwise, our children and our world will suffer.