Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Protecting Human Jobs From Computers And Robots

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a column about the application of social philosophy to the rapidly changing situation within modern technology is that I am forced to  constantly think about these changes.  Recently, I found an article online by Anthonia Akitunde,  editor of Federated Media Publishing, Inc. that was titled “Why Robots Could Take Over Almost Half of Human Jobs”.  It was published on October 16, 2013, so it is truly very recent.  Akitunde writes about a study done by two researchers at Oxford University. 702 types of jobs were analyzed across a wide range of industries and 47% of them were found to be vulnerable to computerization.  A whole bunch of jobs from manufacturing to the movement of materials to even the legal professions were included in this category.  According to the researchers, any job that could be “ restructured to remove the need for high-level perception and manipulation, and creative and social intelligence” was vulnerable to takeover by machines.  In other words, human jobs that had a large amount of routine tasks would be eliminated.  This is the kind of job done by a lot of average middle-class workers.

            But don’t worry.  A company like Amazon uses robots to transport items within its enormous warehouse, but it still needs humans to take things out of the bins that are transported.  70,000 temporary workers are being hired for this purpose and several thousand of these temporary workers may be converted into permanent workers.  What happens to the other temps?  Heaven will provide.

            The study, although done by researchers from a very fine famous university, is still just one study.  Nevertheless, the trends uncovered by their research are certainly not counterintuitive, but rather reflect changes that have been discussed in the writings of many people, including yours truly.  The only surprise element for me in this study is the potential for this takeover to occur so soon. Even when workers are needed for work that is not routine – work that can be done in conjunction with the work of the computers and robots – there are still an awful lot of jobs that will be eliminated.  And the price for the short-term cut in costs in various businesses through the increasing use of computers and robots is the long-term cost of long-term mass unemployment.

            This is unfortunately a situation that does not lend itself to the voluntary actions of individuals in order to deal with its effects.  This is not a situation like when I suggest it would be healthier for people to diminish their use of consumer technology, to not always buy the latest model of something or the latest app.  This is not a situation where going on a personal technology diet will have any significant effect. 

            Many workers are being put into an economic vacuum where they are unable to meaningfully participate in the money-making activities that keep a society running.  They are also being put into an experiential vacuum, where they are not grounded in or bonded to any part of the flow of the important money-making social processes in which people have traditionally spent a major part of their daily lives.  Living in a vacuum, these long-term unemployed workers become like ghosts – vacuumized free-floating figures that are unable to leave meaningful imprints on the surfaces of their fields of experience.

            One way that such ghost people might validate their existence and pull out of the experiential vacuum would be through violence.  As I have discussed in previous articles, violence becomes a desperate solution by people in modern technological society who want to pull out of chronic numbness.  Imagine if large-scale violence started occurring as a result of mass unemployment from the takeover by computers and robots of a significant percentage of jobs.

            It seems to me that just as we all have a vested interest now in protecting our natural environment from being totally destroyed, so we all have a vested interest in protecting our human vocational environment.  Just as government has started creating laws and rules that  impose limitations on the amount and the quality of pollution that businesses, homes and the government itself can create, so the government should start creating laws and rules protecting the amount and the quality of human jobs..  In the U.S., we have an E.P.A. – an Environmental Protection Agency.  Now we need a V.P.A. – a Vocational Protection Agency that protects human jobs from the encroachment of computers and robots.  Employers should not have the automatic right to use computers and robots for jobs that humans can do.  The truth is that although basic tools like knives and hammers are helpers to human beings, technology has now evolved to the point where we have work entities that are competitors or rivals to human beings.

            A Vocational Protection Agency will not interfere when companies lay off workers, for instance, when business is slow.  Nor will it get involved in wages, salaries, and benefits.  It will simply concern itself with giving out government permits or licenses to companies for the use of computers and robots in such situations where humans are unable to do a particular kind of work, or, at least are unable to do it safely.  Obviously, there are situations where computers still act as an aid to human workers rather than a displacement of them.  In addition, the agency will make sure that humans are still doing all of the work of which they are capable.

            Now some of my readers might say such an agency will stop progress and slow down growth.  But what good is the progress and growth, if such a large percentage of people are going to be prevented from receiving the benefits.  The economy is not some abstract entity.  At bottom, the economy is made up of the people. – workers as well as managers and owners.  When possible, people should be allowed to keep their jobs.  Computers and robots can be introduced into a work situation provided that they either extend the capacities of workers without replacing them, or else, they do completed tasks by themselves that humans can’t do or, at least, can’t do safely.  An example of the latter is robots that handle radioactive materials.

            Other readers might say, I want to add another stultifying layer of bureaucracy to government.  There is no question that government regulation slows down economic processes.  In some countries, it practically paralyzes them.  But regulation is sometimes truly needed to deal with aspects of human life that could get out of control in a destructive way.  Having masses of unemployed workers, masses of ghost people floating around in a dangerous vacuum, is a potentially very explosive situation that could lead to dire consequences.  By comparison, another level of bureaucracy is simply an annoying discomfort.

            Work gives people a source of economic survival.  It gives people the opportunity to feel empowered and more secure by being able to make and preserve organic imprints ( however meager these imprints may be  as a result of the mediation between the worker and his working environment by modern technology ).  And it allows people to use their work to feel grounded in and bonded to their living environment.  Work is not only important in economic terms; it is also important in psychological and experiential terms.

            The accelerating displacement of human workers by computers and robots is but one of many rapid changes occurring in human life today as a result of technological evolution.  Just as we have developed a body of thought called bioethics to deal with the moral implications of many aspects of modern medicine, so we now have to develop a body of thought that we can call technoethics to deal with the moral implications of the way modern technology impinges on human life.  We have to start working on this body of thought now, while we still have an opportunity to maintain some control over the situation.  We must do this before it’s too late.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow

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