I-ROBOT, meet I-Need-a-Job

For anyone looking for a story about how technology is impacting the unemployment picture, there is perhaps no better place to start than Martin Ford’s Lights at the End of the TunnelWhat Ford hopes is to start a conversation. That conversation is about the rising intelligence of machines, and what that means to the future of work, and the survival of a market based society. Ford’s predictions of a world that our children or grandchildren will be living in: the world before 2089; sounds like science fiction, but his view of the increasing speed and complexity of our machines is conservative. He is no Ray Kurzweil, though he takes the Singularity movement as something much more seriously than many of its detractors might.The world of 2089 is one in which almost all work done by humans can be better performed by machines.  Highly paid knowledge workers might feel safe from all this robot stuff. After all,who can imagine C3PO standing in front of a court room arguing a case? But, as Ford points out, the job of the vast majority of knowledge workers, including lawyers, deals with sifting through information, summarizing that information, and moving it around. This is a task that advanced algorithms can do splendidly, with out the need for coffee breaks at Starbucks, or better, without the need for health care or a 401k matching plan. Certain types of medical professionals, such as radiologist, who make 100k a year, seemed destined to go the way of the the Steel mill worker- replaced by a combination of outsourcing and automation.It is the relationship between outsourcing and automation that is one of the most interesting contentions of Ford’s book. He sees outsourcing as more of a prelude to automation than an end in itself. Companies first outsource something to minimize human labor costs- say that of the poor souls in India who are forced to help Americans with their tech and credit card problems. Eventually though, machines always catch up, and can therefore provide a much more efficient job, 24/7 without ever asking for a sick day off. “Buy America” types might be happy about this because it suggests many of those manufacturing jobs we’ve offloaded to China will at some point be coming home. The rub is they won’t be bringing the jobs back with them.

The jobs that will be last to disappear will be those low skill jobs that have proven extremely hard to automate. There is an old AI adage that something that took life 5 billion years to master- say picking up after toddlers- is hard, whereas something life has been doing for only a few thousand- say mathematics- is easy. Ford’s question is how can a market society based on consumption survive in a world where work has dwindled to almost nothing, along with the incomes attached to it? His answer is- it can’t.

It is Ford’s solutions I have some problems with: a massive guaranteed income system that is meant to preserve consumption. How do we pay for it? We tax the profits of producer companies that would have, without automation, had to provide income to workers. Given that the system is straining, or soon will be, under the current income system we have for the retired, this solution seems more fanciful that a world where almost all work is done by machines.

The question I have is why do we have to preserve the current system under the assumptions of near total automation? Is there no better system that would reflect better the new situation? There isn’t a market economy on Star Trek- well not counting the Ferengi. In any case, Ford has certainly got a discussion started with this excellent and smart book.


Eulogy for the European Union

Pericles, the last of the European Commissioners, appeared before the crowd in Athens. The mass was silent as he took the stage in the cool, dark December evening with yellow lights from the crowd flickering like fire-flies. He was there to announce the dissolution of the European Union.

“What sadder, and yet more relevant place, to announce the end of our grand European project than here at the very birth place of our civilization? From Hellas, and especially from Athens, came the seeds greatest and most unique contributions of our civilization to the inheritance of the world; our philosophy; our science; our democracy and love of freedom.

Our civilization was united only once under the stern, lawful dominion of Rome. A rule that appeared eternal, but like all that is human, or the work of human beings, did not last forever. What Rome left us was a dream of unity, a dream that was adopted even by the Germanic tribes that shattered the empire, and began the story of new European peoples.

The Roman dream was also kept alive by the Catholic Church which preserved for all Europe the grandeur and tradition of Rome, while, as it always is with irony and cunning of history, lit the kindling in the hearts of men, which burned with the desire of egalitarianism and individualism, and burst forth in the fires of the Protestant Reformation. The end of the Wars of Religion meant that Europe would never be united under a single spiritual banner.

Even in the midst of the howling winds of chaos the light of reason lit first by the Ancient Greeks was kept alive and grew bursting forth with modern science, exploration and discovery; enlightenment; capitalism and industrialization: European legacies that have so changed the world that it will never be the same again.  Under the powers brought by its knowledge Europe very nearly conquered the whole of the earth and brought at last Nature herself under man’s dominion. The reign of the West was littered with  contradictions: that of prosperity and enslavement; health and barbarity; power and impotence. But even though it ruled a world Europe still remained divided within.

The new Cesar, Napoleon, emerged and with his armies almost united Europe. Here too, the contradictions of history brought themselves to the fore. Here a republican army led by an autocratic dictator brought free government to Europe through the force of arms. Yet, rather than create a united, free Europe, the French lit the fires of nationalism that would seemingly divide the continent forever.

The First World War was yet a second attempt at uniting Europe this time under the banner of the ascendant Germanic peoples. The Great War was an unparalleled disaster for Europe and cast it from the pedestal of world power it had occupied since the beginning of the modern age.

The new chaos which descended upon Europe brought forth demons from the abyss- Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism- that sought to solve the contradiction of the need for European unity and the diversity of its peoples by destroying all of its differences.

It was only here, during the Second World War, that a truly democratic movement for the foundation of a united Europe, based on the diversity of its peoples, truly existed in the form of the European resistance movements to Nazi rule. There, in the words of Hannah Arendt”:

“As Jews we want to fight for the freedom of the Jewish people, because ‘If I am not for me- who is for me?’ As Europeans we want to fight for the freedom of Europe, because ‘If I am only for me who am I?’ (Hillel) [first century A.D. Jewish sage]. (Jewish Writings 141-142).

 “If any monument to the war dead of the European Union had been built it should have been dedicated to these martyrs for a free and united Europe.

The hope that such a world would emerge out of the ashes of the War was smothered by the big powers at the War’s end who wished for no new political structures in Europe, and instead saw Europe split in two by an iron wall.

It was in the wake of War that it was decided that the fate of Europe was best left to its elites. This too was part of the European tradition. Plato, who walked here, had his Guardians, the Church bound Europe with its in a trans-European clerical elite, the brotherhoods of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were pan-European in nature.

For the modern denizens of unification from above by the steady hand of the more Enlightened, globalization seemed to show the way. What was needed was a single market rather than a single demos, what was required was a shared currency, not a shared parliament.  Some, and I count myself among the naive here, thought the European Union, offered a hint at the solution to the contradiction of modern politics- how to have a democratic form of society in a globalized world. In the end the Union seemed to offer little but the oppression of the small by the big powers, and the subservience of both to the all powerful global markets.

And thus it was, after the default of Greece and its exit from the Union was followed by similar events in Italy, Ireland and eventually Spain, that our project came to a tragic end. Unable to make our new empire as free and our loyalty to it as strong as that in and for our traditional nations, we returned to more narrow visions as the source of our aspirations, with the idea of Europe extinguished until futures far distant.”

Here Pericles ended his speech to crowd who remained silent.

Rick Searle

November, 21, 2011