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A robot apocalypse? Part 1 by @BloggersRUs

A robot apocalypse? Part 1

by Tom Sullivan


Image: "I, Robot" cover, The Alan Parsons Project, 1977.

Months prior to the fall of Saigon, a little humor book appeared on the new book shelf at school. "The D. C. Dialect: How to Master The New Language of Washington in Ten Easy Lessons" was a send-up of the sort of the obfuscatory euphemisms heard from Vietnam War-era generals and White House aides during congressional hearings. Peel back "counterinsurgency strikes," for example, and you might find the Nixon administration illegally bombing Cambodia. But deploy it on the D.C. cocktail circuit and you'd sound as if you were someone in the know.

Such expressions are widespread on the Davos circuit. Kevin Roose of the New York Times heard a few fresher euphemisms while covering the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. Only it wasn't a noncombatant nation being targeted, but your job. "They’ll never admit it in public," Roose begins, "but many of your bosses want machines to replace you as soon as possible." While showing public concern for the "negative consequences that artificial intelligence and automation" on workers, in private executives are in a rush, Roose believes, to automate to stay ahead of competitors. Workers be damned.

We're talking "fat profit margins" here. Executives who once dreamed of reducing their work forces by 5 to 10 percent through automation now have visions of doing the same work with 1 percent of current staff. It's not personal. It's strictly business:

Few American executives will admit wanting to get rid of human workers, a taboo in today’s age of inequality. So they’ve come up with a long list of buzzwords and euphemisms to disguise their intent. Workers aren’t being replaced by machines, they’re being “released” from onerous, repetitive tasks. Companies aren’t laying off workers, they’re “undergoing digital transformation.”
Remember to take the cannoli.

One former Google executive interviewed by "60 Minutes" predicted artificial intelligence will displace 40 percent of the world’s workers within 15 years.

It's not as if in a time of anti-elite backlash there is no concern for avoiding an automated future featuring manually operated pitchforks and guillotines. But as is often true, an elite decision that leads to dire consequences for thousands of workers is portrayed as "a natural phenomenon over which they have no control, like hurricanes or heat waves," Roose continues. Nobody is responsible for firing workers. Workers simply lost their jobs.

Few candidates headed for the Democratic presidential primaries next year seem to be talking about the political upheaval ahead, writes Will Bunch, except one:

New York businessman Andrew Yang says the most critical item on his 2020 agenda is fending off a robot apocalypse such as the loss of 1 million U.S. jobs just attributable to the rise of self-driving trucks, which is enough to cause, in his words. “riots in the street.” His solution is a kind of guaranteed national income that he calls a “Freedom Dividend,” $1,000 a month that would be sent to every citizen aged 18-64, to cushion against the job-loss tsunami.
Other Democratic proposals aimed at raising marginal tax rates on billionaires might help flatten the wealth gap, Bunch adds. That could help fund the "Freedom Dividend" but still leave the problem of what to do with thousands upon thousands of people for whom there simply are no jobs whatever their skill sets. Conservative pundits exercised about "takers" and government handouts will be the only ones with full schedules.

Bunch concludes:

Here’s a suggestion for Wall Street and all those other CEO’s still high on the Alpine air of Davos: Maybe stop obsessing over artificial intelligence and use some emotional intelligence for a change. The short-term sugar rush of quarterly profit margins won’t be worth a warm bucket of spit in an economy with Great Depression levels of unemployment, where the only guaranteed job is building the barricades of a social revolution. That means thinking about stakeholders, including workers, and not just shareholders.
This is not George Jetson's future, Bunch laments. Or as Faulkner might say, the future is not even the future.

Tomorrow: Part 2