(2) Artificial Intelligence is equal to Total Unemployment

Posted by: Shreepal Singh

Mark Walker (Richard L. Hedden Chair of Advanced Philosophical Studies, New Mexico State University) has conducted research on the impact of Artificial Intelligence on employment and has published an article in Journal of Evolution and Technology (Vol. 24 Issue I – February 2014 – pages 5-25). Our article is based upon the conclusions of his studies. We have liberally borrowed the material from his published work and the entire credit goes to him, except where we have put our own opinion on the subject.

While analyzing the working of our present / liberal economy, we have already mentioned that there are five prerequisites for the smooth working of this economy and that the absence of even one of these parametric conditions would make this economy collapse. To recapitulate, these five primary requirements for the working of the liberal economy are: Firstly, the liberal economy is founded on the basic premises that the private initiative of a free person must be allowed to take the risk (of investment in commodity-production) in his strides and allowed to reap the sweet or bitter fruits of that risk. Secondly, this economy needs that technology must has advanced to such a degree that, in the process of commodity-production process, the machines start to play the primary and the natural resources the secondary role in the process. Thirdly, this economy must ensure that it is the capital and capital alone which can purchase machines and that such capital must not be freely available to all. Fourthly, this economy must ensure that machines needed for production always need human-hands to operate them. Fifthly, this economy must ensure that the human-hands (needed to work those machines) would be available on hire by capital and willing to work (interestingly, Mark Walker has termed this the “threat-economy) under the prevailing circumstances of those human-hands.

In this series of articles we will show on the basis of studies made by researchers that Artificial Intelligence has already begun to replace the present liberal economy with a new economy where “machines” are not material machines (needing capital to purchase them) but “knowledge machines” (like coded software, altered DNA etc.), which do not need capital to make/buy them; “knowledgeable human-hands” are not always available on hire (like, open source software etc.) by capital; machines are there that do not need human-hands to operate them (like, robots); it is but apparent that today technology has greatly advanced and raw materials play only secondary role in the process of producing commodities, and that this new technology plays the primary role in the production-process. Of course, the motive of the private initiative of a free person still remains today to reap bitter or sweet fruits of this initiative. It looks that it would be the last part (of the liberal economy) to be replaced by the new emerging economy, which is being built by Artificial Intelligence!

Mark Walker says he believes that on the horizon there is an age where humans might work because they want to work, not because they must work. Though he does not give any reason why humans would be allowed to work by those whose only purpose to run production is to earn profits, when there is no need of them for their work. After all, these humans, if employed by employers, need to be paid their wages, which lessens the employers’ profits.

Moral considerations, like employers should realize the explosive consequences of the new technology – total unemployment – and should somehow employ people though their work is not needed, are nothing but the jarring notes in this context. Such an approach to the problem in eagerness to solve it, is itself against the very foundation of the present system: all employers are actuated by the motive of earning profit. The whole concept of liberal economy is based on the natural human tendencies and instincts: to secure advantage, benefits and security against uncertain future.

Mark Walker sees the oncoming of an age where human labor would be like the labor we devote to our hobbies, motivated by joy and self-actualization. The author is not oblivious of the dooming prospect of the Artificial Intelligence on human employment and in an effort to avert this sad prospect suggests certain schemes to be adopted, with which we are not concerned here. However, we may observe that in our opinion these “suggested schemes” to avert the sad consequences for the “threat-economy” of the Artificial Intelligence are nothing more than the last ditch efforts or fire-fighting measure.

He says that our economy (liberal capitalism) is the ‘threat-economy’ where fear of starvation, homelessness and death work as a stick to ensure that the work by humans is made imperative’ (remember our proposition that capitalism needs for its survival that humans must work on machines.) and says,the threat-economy faces a paradox: the threat-economy says everyone must work but the threat-economy will not generate enough jobs for everyone, so the work of some will become redundant`.

He does not discount the possibility that one day machines will completely replace all human labor. There are other studies also, which say that it is not the “possibility” but “certainty” that one day – and that day is not far off – machines will completely replace all human labor. (We shall refer to them in due course).

Mark Walker points out that the threat to employment of people from robotics can be visualized in the emerging situation where all the jobs being done presently by human beings could be taken over by robots. We may fast-forward ourselves (in our imagination) ten or twenty years hence and we would find that the razor was made at an entirely robotic factory and shipped robotically to an Amazon distribution center. When Mr. A’s order was placed, it was robotically packaged and sent out in a small robotically driven helicopter, small enough to drop the package right at his doorstep. We would find that gone too are the small army of human shelf stockers. This job is now done robotically. Robots are also in use at every step in the distribution and production sequence. Robots packed and drove the food to your local Walmart. Robots also were used to grow the food on the farm. Then they were packed and shipped robotically as well.

He rightly observes that it may be unnerving to those who do not follow robotic development closely that a very little extrapolation from our current technology is required to the new one.

The idea that the electric razor might reach your hand untouched by any other human is only a small extrapolation from current technology. He gives the following examples to substantiate his conclusion.

Recently, Philips Electronics opened a factory in the Dutch countryside that uses 128 robots and 1/10 the human labor as a counterpart factory in China (Markoff, 2012). The robots work with greater acuity and dexterity than is possible for an unaided human, e.g., one robot bends a connector wire in three places, and guided by video camera, slips the bent wire into holes too small for the human eye to see (Markoff, 2012). The robots are able to do such incredible feats at such a rapid rate that the robots themselves must be enclosed in glass cages: their rapid speed is a danger to the few humans working in the factory. And mind you, the robots are capable of working 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

The new way of manufacturing has made obsolete the old way: hundreds of Chinese workers assembling razors in China by using human labor!

Not only is manufacturing being revolutionized by robotic workers, but the same is happening in the shipping and receiving industry.

On the transportation end, Google has software that drives cars without drivers: vehicles that can drive themselves on busy roads

The safety record of this software already exceeds that of the average human driver. It is not hard to imagine that human driven vehicles may be illegal in twenty years, only because they are so dangerous in comparison to robotically driven vehicles

This does not stop here: even this small residual workforce will be replaced in large measure by “farmbots.” In all likelihood, in twenty years, robots will greatly outnumber humans on farms in the U.S, says Mark Walker.

A recent report (NYT News Service reported in TOI April 27, 2014) says dairy operators in upstate New York farms, besieged by the soaring prices of human-hands to take care of their business of milking cows (or, enticed by the availability of a new cheaper alternative!), have entered into a new brave world of “robotic milkers”. These machines feed and milk cow after cow without the help of a single farmhand. These robots have popped up across New York’s dairy belt, which allow cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day. Equipped with transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized services; lasers scan and map their underbellies, and feed the data to a computer which prepares a chart of “each cow’s milking speed”. The robots also monitor the amount and quality of milk produced; frequency of visits to the machine; how much each cow has eaten; and, even the number of steps each cow has taken per day, which can indicate when she is in heat.

Tim Kurtz, a dairy businessman who has installed four robotic milkers last year at his farm in Berks County, Pa, says, “It is tough to find people to do it well and show up on time”. Now he is happy that the machines installed by him never complain about getting up early and working late hours!

Not only will we see a radical reduction in the need for human employment in manufacturing, distribution, transportation and agriculture, but in more “cerebral” professions as well. There are medical programs that outperform even experienced physicians in diagnosing disease.

It seems that hardly a week passes when there is not some headline screeching about robotics taking jobs.

Medicine is not the only high profile profession under siege: there are computer programs operating today that can perform legal research faster and more effectively than well-trained lawyers (Krugman, 2011).

The so-called “oldest profession” should also worry about the reduced need for human labor in their very “private” field. Sexbots are available now with several different “personalities,” capable of performing a number of different sexual acts. As the price drops, there is every reason to suppose sexbots and other robots will replace even more human labor (Levy, 2011).

Another example of robotic progress is Baxter from Rethink Robotics. Baxter is an industrial robot designed by Rodney Brooks, inventor of the Roomba robot. Baxter learns by doing rather than having new code input. This makes the lifetime cost of Baxter an order of magnitude cheaper than many of its competitors ($22,000 versus $500,000), informs us Mark Walker.

Robots like Baxter will revolutionize industrial production. Interestingly, there is already a robotic hamburger maker available from Momentum Machines (Murray, 2013). It will cook up to 360 hamburgers an hour, plus cut fresh tomatoes, lettuce and pickles. Or consider Kura, a sushi restaurant chain in Japan that uses robotics to lower its labor costs (Chan, 2010).

The news given by Mark Walker is that Philips Electronics has already found it more economical to set up a robotic factory in Europe than have electric razors made in China with cheap labor and then shipped to Europe.

If robots take away enough employment to make full employment impossible, then the paradoxical result emerges that there is a demand for people to do the impossible. It is a logical paradox of the “threat-economy”.

Mark Walker refers to the currently raging debate on the prospect of robotics or Artificial Intelligence on employment between the two rival camps, which he terms as “Chicken Little” (alarmists camp that sees robotics taking away all jobs) and “Economists” (read liberal economists who say the new technology will create new unforeseen jobs). He says that the case for Chicken Little is based on the observation that computers and robotics are making inroads into so many sectors of the economy: agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, retail, professional services, teaching, health care, and food services to name but a few; while the case of the rival camp, he observes, is based on an inductive argument based on the general premise that the future will resemble the past. Similarly, the economists’ argument uses the same inductive pattern: every time automation displaced workers in the past, new jobs were created by new technology.

He very wisely says that this time the future will not resemble the past and that to see why the future will not resemble the past, economically speaking, it will help us to step back for a moment and ask ourselves what role humans play in the economy.

What we offer to the economy in terms of labor is aptly illustrated by a comparison with horses: At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution there was an employee, whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of the working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle.

But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low it did not pay for their feed (Clark, 2008).

Mark Walker asks a very interesting question: Why did new career opportunities not open up for horses after the invention of the combustion engine? After all, if we are to believe that new job opportunities will open up for humans in the robotic revolution, then surely capitalism should have found jobs for horses after the internal combustion engine revolution.

The unbridled optimism of the economists seems to suggest full employment for horses too. So, why did so many of them end up at the knackers? Why shouldn’t we predict the same thing for human workers this time when robots have come in to replace humans and which perform better than humans (as engines performed better than horses)? Shall we all human-hands also end up like horses did? Why did so many of horses end up at the knackers? Mark Walker answers: horses have one main thing to offer the labor market, namely, their physical labor.

As the quote from Clarke (given by Mark Walker) indicates, it is not that physical labor is not valued in the modern economy; it is simply that the internal combustion engine (or electrical engine) can provide the same physical labor much more cheaply.

Humans have three things to offer the economy: brains, muscles and nostalgia. History shows the inception of two great transformations in the economy. The first, approximately 1800-1950, is where human muscle power was replaced by machine power.

The Second Great Transformation, 1950-2050, is where computers and robots replace human minds in the economy. Humans can still compete in the area of the mind, but as we have seen, this advantage is dwindling.

Robots that work in factories, advanced computers that drive cars in busy traffic or make accurate medical diagnosis, or do effective law research, all are making inroads into areas where humans once had a unique advantage and where now robots have this advantage over humans.

Now we can see then why this time the past is not a particularly good predictor of the future in the case of employment.

Unlike the displacement of labor during the First Great Transformation, there is no untapped category this time for surplus human labor to migrate to. Firstly, there are no new sectors openings with the advent of robotics and, even if there are new openings, then the cost advantage in the matter of employment will lie with robots for the most part, and so there will be weak demand for human mental labor in the future just as the demand for human muscle dropped precipitously in the past (with the advent of engines), concludes Mark Walker.



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