Friday, March 22, 2013

Utopian or Dystopian?

I listened to a segment about how we interact with robots, and it was not comforting. I encourage you to listen to the TED talks linked above, you will better understand the background. Secondly, unemployment has not been under 7.5% in more than four years. It strikes me that automation is taking over people's jobs. Next will be truck drivers. Seriously, by 2020 I expect driving to be very automated. At least by 2030 it will be mainstream. There is another 3-4 million people out of work.

The people creating these innovations have the dream of a utopian future. One where we can pursue recreation, relationships, athletics, travel, and not 60+ hour work weeks. While that is good in theory, and I would like to see it, I feel that we are getting there through dystopian progress. I mean, with the pace of innovation and automation humans are being replaced faster than new industries are created for employment. In other words, every major innovation in history has left formerly skilled people unemployed. We no longer have a horse doctor or black smith to fix our horses, we have mechanics to fix our cars. We don't have humans pick cotton by hand, we have big machines that harvest it. We don't harvest ice in the winter and store it all summer, we have freezers and refrigerators.

I see this as scary, because even with a master's degree I realize that someday what I do now will be automated. It will be 10-15 years after cars drive us everywhere, but my job is a series of choices and assumptions, which could realistically be automated. This isn't simply about truck drivers being replaced, it's about kids learning better from tablets than teachers, engineering done more consistently and with more optimized products when done by a machine, and banking done entirely by software.

My concern is how people who become unemployed because of their job being automated are to get paid? Turbotax put thousands of tax accountants out of work, and made one man a millionaire. The people at Google (or someplace else) will put millions of truck drivers out of work, while hiring a fraction of that number of people to provide continuous support to automated driving. My solution is either private industries pay large numbers of people salaries just to be on call in case of an emergency (with some sort of stipulation that they do a certain amount of continuing education), or the government provides some sort of basic minimum income to everyone. Of course we aren't really close to either happening. It will be a couple decades before engineering is automated the way I envision it. Unemployment would probably have to creep up to 20% or something before companies and governments realize that humans are being replaced like never before in the last 160 years of mechanization.

We don't really know what will happen. Hopefully I'm viewing the future and automation pessimistically. We will just have to get there one day and one hour at a time.

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