It’s easy to write off the notion of being replaced by a machine as something from a dystopian movie starring Will Smith. It’s an event that will ‘never happen in our time.’ However, as the pace at which technology advances quickens, it’s something that’s increasingly becoming a reality. The most prominent example of this is the gradual phasing out of retail workers, who are slowly but surely being replaced by more cost effective self-service units that require a single supervisor...and zero coffee breaks. Still, most people spend more time worrying about being replaced by someone more qualified for their job, not something.
However, the past few weeks have brought this issue to the doorstep of London, England’s capital city. As a result of proposed job cuts and the closure of ticket offices, a huge number of TfL (Transport for London) workers went on strike two weeks ago and caused massive disruption to the city’s Underground service and the lives of many of its commuters.
Stealing Jobs Or Ending Redundancy?
Some have shown solidarity with those on strike and claim that ticket offices are still necessary, especially for tourists. Others argue that tourists are far better off dealing with machines that ‘speak’ their language (as well as eight or nine others) perfectly. Many natives highlight the fact that, despite having lived in the city for years, they've never actually dealt with a human being at a ticket office.
Whether or not ticket offices are indispensible is up for debate, but it’s a fact of modern life that this won’t be the last time workers feel compelled to react to their impending replacement by machines. So what happens when strikes fail to stem the tide, resulting in more and more people being pushed aside by technology? As unemployment rises, presumably to the extent that the middle class increasingly finds itself clutching at straws to make ends meet, there are a couple of different options. People can either continue to delude themselves into thinking that jobs will come back (they won’t) and that everything will be fine, OR society can welcome the possibility of a completely new way of life.
The substitution of what we now call our workforce for machines is unnerving, maybe even a little scary, but there are also upsides to it. As the cost of producing goods and packaging food drops, so does (or so should, at least) the costs associated with purchasing them. This drop is no longer of the ‘we can outsource this to a team of remote workers in India or China more cheaply’ order, but of the ‘machines can do this thousands of times faster than humans’ order. In theory, automated production lines, genetic modification, and 3D printing could see the price of textiles, food, and many other goods drop to an all-time low.
A Potential For Good
One consequence of this is the option to provide the unemployed, and indeed others, with food, and clothing, instead of pecuniary benefits. With the advent of things like flatpack homes, it’s even feasible that young people, the elderly, and the unemployed could be provided with subsidised or free long-term housing solutions.
Granted, it would take a very progressive government (and population) very open to new ideas to get any of this implemented, but it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility. There’s already a town in Denmark that’s entirely powered by free energy from community owned wind turbines – granted, wind turbines aren’t exactly the same as robots, but it still demonstrates a willingness to embrace new technology and challenge the conventional way of doing things.
Richard Branson has previously expressed his view that in 20 years working in offices will be a thing of the past and will be replaced entirely by freelancing and remote working. Is the next logical step in that process the abolishment of 'work' as we know it?
Meanwhile, entrepreneur James Dyson recently stated that, in what feels like a take-off of Herbert Hoover’s ‘car in every garage and a chicken in every pot’ campaign, his company intends to bring advanced household androids (that are affordable enough for even low income families) to homes across the UK.
If we’re due to see any backlash against robotics, which one suspects might take a very similar shape to the ‘they took our jobs!’ reasoning of anti-immigration campaigners, we haven’t really seen it yet. Still, one wonders where we draw the line – are androids suitable for work that requires split-second decision making, like law enforcement or military service? First, they’d have to get over Asimov’s first law of robotics…
Of course, there's a dark underbelly to this utopian vision (aside from newly liberated people not knowing how to spend all this free time): if work becomes a thing of the past and everything is provided pro bono, presumably by the government, what happens to people who cause trouble? He who giveth can just as easily taketh away. Maybe we're not quite ready for this type of nanny state after all.
No doubt, the automation of the middle class workforce IS coming. It’s how we handle it that will define whether or not it makes us better or worse off. In a recent Evening Standard piece, Amol Rajan called for a return to ‘the heart industries’, i.e. work that requires a human touch. Although it's an attractive idea, it's also dangerous, because it implies that there will still be enough work for everyone, which is highly unlikely. Whatever the solution, we need to think big and start preparing for the inevitable.