You can’t turn on a TV lately (shut up, Millennials, people still watch TV) without seeing some shrill ‘expert’ in plane-crash panic about job-stealing robots relegating the entire workforce to unemployment benefits. Ironically, a sizeable cottage industry of “expert” robot panickers has developed showing that even the thought of robotics can create more jobs.
The rise of killer robots, more sensibly known as automation, has become topical in recent years as governments grapple with the prospect of serious numbers of job losses, and a correlating number of pissed off voters looking to punish the government that didn’t protect them. Reports, such as the McKinsey Global Institute’s study of over 800 occupations in 46 countries that projected 800 million job losses, have sent mainstream media into an orgy of dramatisations on the impending downfall of humankind at the metallic hand of ruthless job-killing robots – each story accompanied by vision of the Terminator marching through a defeated world.
At some point, though, people are going to notice that robots aren’t yet cleaning our houses, nursing the elderly, driving trucks, building houses, making porn or rescuing cats from trees.
People are doing these jobs now and will do for many years to come. The “imminent” future of the end of manual work is not imminent at all. It’s happening in slow motion.
Media “experts” on killer robots often don’t pause to explain that although robots might soon be able to chauffeur you around, deliver your new TV and flip your burgers, they won’t do these things for love. Robots, you’ll remember from the media news, are cold-hearted, ruthless motherfuckers. They only do stuff that will make their faceless corporate bosses (presumably also robots, possibly in pinstripe suits) truck-loads of money. To make money, people have to buy shit. Someone has to buy the self-driving cars, pay for the TVs being delivered and purchase the burgers.
So, if robots have taken all the jobs and we’re all on unemployment benefits, who the fuck is buying all this shit?
Answer: no-one, because, a) they don’t have any money, and b) people don’t spend money when they’re worried about the future. Thus, therefore and fucking ergo, run-away robotics can only run as far as the economy can support.
There are several other understated effects that might help moderate the worst of automation. Just as globalisation saw companies offshore their factories to countries where labour was cheap (that’s why your TVs are made in Asia and are cheaper now than they were decades ago), robotics too reduces the cost of making stuff. In fact, it reduces costs so much that it starts to make sense to bring your factories back home again. Philips in the Netherlands and Adidas in Germany have “reshored” some of their factories. This creates jobs in Netherlands and Germany to manage, maintain, supply and support the factories.
It’s also worth noting that you can’t automate everything. Even in highly automatable sectors like manufacturing, there is such a thing as too much automation. Elon Musk recently learnt this lesson when he was forced to redesign his highly automated Tesla plant because excessive use of robotics had slowed down car production.
All of this is not to say we should kick back and let it all sort itself out. Or worse, bury our heads in the sand – ask the car industry how that panned out.
We need to put our big boy and girl pants on and face reality about the services and industries that are heading for automation and get the fuck out. The writing is on the wall: reskill or perish.
I don’t mean to brush lightly over this. It will be hard for some people. Older folks who have worked their whole life and are looking forward to retirement after a lifetime of paying taxes, or folks in one-industry towns that have built their lives in that location, will struggle. It will not be fair to them. It is not right. It will happen anyway.