I met this man in 2015 on the last day of our holiday in New Zealand. I don’t even know his name, yet every time I hear of advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), I think of him; him, and his two hands. Not that he voiced any concerns about the progress of technology. It was I who became alarmed for his sake.
He seemed to come from nowhere. Only later I noticed the wreck of a car, parked next to a tiny, dishevelled tent in a corner of the almost empty community campground. The late afternoon sun was still strong; the warm breeze carried the freshness of the sea into the little inner space of our motor home, where my husband and I sat, facing each other. I lifted my eyes from the book I was reading, and there he was: a tall, thin man in his forties; his dark hair in dreadlocks, feet in crooked shoes with holes, and the dirty, torn jeans dragging hems on the ground.
What did he want? Were we safe? I was glad my husband was with me.
The tall stranger leaned against the door of the van with ease.
‘Holidaying?’ he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he told us he was working at the local tip, camping here during the week, and going back to his partner in Christchurch for the weekend.
‘Just to pay the bills,’ he said sourly. ‘There are zero jobs for someone like me. Everywhere you go, you need a piece of paper. I have no qualifications, that’s how life worked out for me. I never had a chance. I have no fucking piece of paper! All I have is this,’ he extended his hands towards us, ‘this pair of hands. And they are of no use, it seems… Of no use any more…’ The three of us looked at his hands: dirty, but well-shaped, with long fingers, quite beautiful. Two noble human hands, left and right, a pair. Then he left. ‘He must have been very lonely,’ my husband commented later. Yes, he probably was. Yet he has remained with me all these years.
The creation of robots always made me uneasy. Firstly, because of their potential impact on the competition for resources – including jobs; secondly, the influence on human relationships and societal structures; and finally, the possibility of development of sentient, thinking machines leading to unforeseeable consequences. In the past, I tried to comfort myself by blaming my angst on alarmist, and unreasonable thinking. After all, throughout history people have always feared change and innovation. I reminded myself about the plusses of technological advances, like access to information, entertainment, education, ability to communicate regardless of the distance involved; enhancements in research, platforms for businesses… What about the jobs that are often dangerous and are not really suitable for human bodies and souls? Or bionic organs, surgical robots, and other medical achievements, creating a possibility of health, regained functioning, and a better life for many?
2015 was the time I started feeling inundated with sensational reports of the advances in robotics and AI creation, and its impact on employment. I wasn’t sure whether I was witnessing a real explosion of the news, or whether my conversation with the New Zealander, trying to find work for his hands, simply focused my interest on the issue. I kept a record of headlines in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Hadrian, the robot brickie building a house in two days’; ‘car companies and tech giants racing to offer the first fully autonomous car for sale’; ‘a south-western Japanese hotel “manned” almost entirely by robots to save on labour costs’; ‘Robots set to exterminate…your job’. It was a disturbing list. Bankers, financial advisers, taxi drivers, marketers, umpires, engineers, accountants, lending officers, fashion models, fast-food and warehouse workers, cooks, and manicurists, I learned, were amongst the 47 per cent of today’s jobs that had a 94 per cent or higher risk of being replaced by a machine. ‘We are at the leading edge of a wave of innovation that will ultimately produce robots geared toward nearly every conceivable commercial, industrial and consumer task’, warned futurist Martin Ford.
Soon enough I learnt that these sensational articles were the consequence of the so-called coming of age of robotics and AI technology. They had resulted from and were followed by further reports from several learned institutions, such as the Oxford Martin School (2016), the McKinsey Global Institute (2017), and McKinsey Australia (2019). Everyone agreed about the inevitability of machines taking over a vast number of jobs. The difference of opinion lay mainly in their assessment of the impact of this process.
The pessimists paint a dystopic picture of robots replacing humans in every aspect of life, changing the economy as the Industrial Revolution did, and creating social disruption and greater inequality between the haves and have nots. Furthermore, the same advances in AI, aiming at creating potentially sentient, self-aware creatures, stronger than humans both physically and intellectually, prompted many great minds, including Steven Hawking, to raise the alarm about the possibility of an ensuing human extinction.
However, there are also optimistic voices, who point to more free time, and the disappearance of dangerous or repetitious work. In 2019 McKinsey Australia called for an embrace of automation, claiming it ‘can reignite our income growth and help us navigate the headwinds of the aging population…businesses can develop new services and products, boost productivity and create new and better-paying jobs, keeping employment levels high.’ Doesn’t this sound too good to be true? And who are the McKinsey Global Institute and McKinsey Australia donating their advice, advertised as independent work? Are they a charity? No, they are a management consultant group, who have ninety of the world’s one hundred largest corporations as their clients. To what extend can their recommendations be trusted as serving the ordinary person?
The optimism of McKinsey and their ilk doesn’t come from the denial of the dangers of increased unemployment and widening income inequality (possibly becoming on par with the United States or greater), but from the assumption that these issues can be solved by bipartisan nationally coordinated efforts, supporting displaced employees in retraining and re-entering the workforce. These aims would require a huge shift from the current strategies, as in this country we have poor track record both in providing vocational education, and helping workers to transition. However, old mistakes don’t have to be repeated, so there is always hope for improvement.
What I find the hardest to believe in the McKinsey scenario, is the promise of future high employment. In their own estimations, by the year 2030 the Australian economy may need 750,000 more professionals, managers, technicians and associate professionals, while having a surplus of 1.1 million trade, manual and administrative workers. That leaves 350,000 people without a new job to go to. Another report, by the Forrester Consultancy Group, predicts that Australia’s job market will shrink by 11%, or 1.5 million workers, by 2030. Though it’s hard to pick a reliable path through these statistics, they point to a shortfall of jobs.
What worries me is that most of the new jobs will require not just re-training, but up-skilling. Not everybody is able to acquire new skills. I vividly remember not just the New Zealander, who never had a chance of securing the magic piece of paper, but also the people I met while working as a psychiatric registrar in the Blacktown-Mt Druitt area of Sydney many years ago. I took a position freed by a colleague, who had moved to work at Macquarie Hospital in a much more prosperous Ryde. ‘The patients here suffer from the same mental illnesses,’ he said when asked about his new job. ‘But after discharge they have an address to return to, families that have cars. It makes a huge difference!’
Most of my patients didn’t possess such luxuries. Mental illness was the final coating on several layers of social disadvantage; while many neighbours and family members shared the same entrapment in an intergenerational poverty cycle, and lack of life and employment skills. During home visits, I would come across whole households, even streets, where children going to school were the only people leaving home in the morning. One doesn’t have to consider such extremes of hardship to imagine many people with natural abilities different to those required by the new or even old demands. What will happen to all the people in outer suburbia and regional Australia falling through the cracks of re-employment?
The title of a 2019 research paper by Peter Flemming ‘Robots and Organisational Studies: Why Robots Might Not Want to Steal Your Job?’ catches my eye, offering hope. Flemming wisely points to the heart of the matter: technical innovations don’t happen by themselves. They are created by people. At the same time, their application is a human affair driven by the desire for profit. Yes, there will be demand for highly skilled and renumerated workers overseeing and managing emerging technologies; automation won’t occur where it is cheaper to use humans. Additionally, many jobs might not disappear altogether, but become semi-automated, reducing the need for human skills and responsibility, making them less well-paid and secure. This type of employment is already growing rapidly in the UK, the US and many parts of Europe.
The power relationship within any given organisation is, according to Flemming, the second most important influence on implementation of technology, often explicitly used to eliminate the strike-prone workforce. There are no militant dockworkers in major logistic ports, now fully automated. The ride-hailing firm, Uber, announced a serious investment in self-driving cars only after the rapid unionisation of its workforce in the US and Europe, while French striking railway workers are threatened with ‘robot scabs’ of driverless trains. On the other hand, there are also instances of unions still being a force against automation, with the notable win of the NSW Teachers Federation in stopping the plan for computer marking of NAPLAN essays, which was to be introduced in Australia in 2020.
We are all affected by another trend made possible by computerisation: that of shifting previously paid work tasks to unpaid customers. We do unpaid work checking-in at airports, scanning our purchases in big supermarkets, or printing tickets for events, booked online, to name just a few.
Flemming stresses that the changes brought by technology reflect features of neoliberal capitalism rather than intrinsic attributes of technology itself. As such, they could be modified. By directing our attention to the underlying human, socio-economic factors, we can avoid what Flemming terms the Luddites’ ‘futile struggle against the winds of change’. I remember being taught at school about the stupidity of attacking machines, bringing progress and making life easier for everyone. Yet at the time the people behind the machines set up exploitative, dangerous working conditions, which for many decades degraded every aspect of worker’s life, including its length. It was only when workers gained real power through organising themselves, were they able to change the status quo, and truly benefit from the Industrial Revolution.
Though public perception stands in the way of further introduction of some aspects of technology, Flemming warns, ‘Workers of the world…Don’t relax.’ The compensation principle – emergence of new jobs as the old disappear – might not apply anymore. A computer writing a business news report, as they already do, won’t prompt a greater consumption of news. Under those circumstances, the call for new job creation and re-training might not offer the expected outcome. Instead, it suggests that we should prepare ourselves for work occupying a less central position in our lives, or even for a life without work.
And this leads me to wonder, what will happen, if automation reduces the human workforce, but increases the need for welfare payments, such as the universal basic income, which is what some propose as a response to the automation revolution? Bill Gates, of all people, poses a solution: if the place of a worker is taken by a robot, the robot (via its owner) should pay some form of an individual income tax instead of the replaced worker. As Gates had predicted, his idea didn’t meet with great enthusiasm from big businesses, who wanted to continue paying just the low corporate taxes. My friend Ian, an economics and business studies teacher, offers ready answers to my questions: ‘Companies are very good at avoiding paying taxes. If the government were to increase them, the businesses would just move offshore. As for the tax on robots, it would slow the economy by decreasing the rate of innovation. That’s when people lose jobs – when the economy slows down. Even if the USA were to introduce some form of robot levy, because of globalisation it wouldn’t work unless everybody else did the same. The European Union already rejected the proposal in 2017.’ Ian interprets my silence. ‘Don’t worry, Marta’ he says, ‘There have always been Doomsday predictions about machines taking over jobs, right from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But the employment rates in most advanced economies are high and are predicted to remain so. There’ll be new products, new demands we don’t even know about now, new energy sources. People will continue to have jobs.’ Is Ian right? People will continue to have jobs… there’ll be new products, new demands… but what about the Earth, if the economy is based on the endless increase of consumption?
I know from the lessons of history, that a robust economy does not automatically benefit the average guy, unless the elites are persuaded to share their power and profits. Unfortunately, there is little agreement on how and what should be done to provide effective oversight of emerging technologies. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we are unleashing forces we don’t really know how to control.
I look from my window at the garden below, resplendent in its new spring colours. Gentle wind shepherds clouds across the blue sky. On the other side of the street two young mothers walk together, pushing prams. I hear their laughter. Suddenly, my worry about robots appears unnecessary, even surreal. Who cares about robots?
Yet the feeling of belonging to the familiar ‘here and now’ passes quickly, as I read about Elon Musk’s promise to launch a humanoid robot prototype, dubbed the ‘Tesla Bot’, sometime in 2022. The robot will be able to do the grocery shopping, and many other complex jobs, replacing human effort on the everyday front. Looking at the street again, my imagination can already see it full of humanoid robots rushing about, while the humans… the humans are doing… what?
My thoughts return to the man in New Zealand, unable to find his way in the world, his two hands a symbol of his plight. Through our encounter I took on the position of witness to his quandary, while he became a tragic hero looming larger than life; a representative of humanity, striving against the inequality of social systems and the cruelty of Nature itself. What will happen to him?
This essay was developed through an SRB-WestWords residency at the WestWords Centre for Writing in Parramatta.