I can’t not write about the election and the shocking outcome - four years of Trump. A lot of people are discussing how this could have happened, and what this means. This post is about that too - although it may seem tangential at first. But this is, I think, really the core issue of what we are seeing. I want to talk about automation.
I make no secret of the fact that for my day job I am employed as a software engineer, and my job falls into a wider class of jobs you might term "Automation Engineers." In a nutshell, I get paid to write code that does things so that people don't have to do them.
As detailed in CGP Grey's excellent video, "Humans need not apply", employment is trending downward. Jobs are slowly being automated out of existence. For example, 100 years ago, a farm had dozens of farmhands employed to help keep an eye on things, do manual tasks around the farms, help sow the crops and harvest them. 60 years later, a decent sized farm might have less than ten such farmhands around, to drive the huge combine harvesters that had eliminated the need for manual sowing and harvesting. Now, the harvesters are driving themselves. A whole job category has disappeared.
A dramatic example of automation eating jobs, albeit not human jobs, is the horse population before and after the invention of the car. Take a gander at the below chart.
From a peak of over 22 million, after the invention of the automobile the horse population collapsed to less than 2 million. They became obsolete.
More relevant to today, there are over 4 and a half million people employed in the U.S. in the transportation industry - driving taxis, buses, trains, and especially trucks. Unfortunately, trucks can drive themselves now. It’s only a matter of time before the legislation catches up and these jobs disappear too; Uber is already killing the taxi industry and when self driving cars allow Uber to stop paying drivers, even less jobs will exist.
I hear a lot of questions or disagreement when I say this in conversation, so I want to address a few of the things you’re probably thinking.
People prefer to be driven by a real human
- Maybe you prefer to be driven by a real human, but many people don't. Even these preferences can be overridden by economics. If it costs $20 to catch a taxi and $5 to catch a self driving uber, are you really willing to pay the extra?
- If you're still not convinced, refer to the horse example above. Sure, many people liked riding horses and continued to do it after cars were invented, but it became a purely recreational activity - not enough to support the horse population at its current levels.
Human drivers are safer, I don’t trust robots
- Computers can think faster and better and have less accidents. Our reflexes evolved at walking and running speeds, whereas computers can react faster than we blink. You already entrust your life to robots in myriad situations - planes are piloted by them, hospital life support machines run on one, you trust the computer in your hand to work when you need to call for an ambulance. They're already out there being trusted and doing their job better than humans ever can.
- Maybe you agree that computers are better but think that they're still too risky while humans are on the road. Imagine if every car on the road was self driving. Indicators and horns and brake lights on cars operate as crude forms of communication, to let other drivers know what we are doing, but are often used incorrectly, misunderstood or ignored by humans. If an AI was driving the car it would have near perfect wireless communication with the AI in every other car on the road. If every car is working in a network, the odds of a mistake being made go way down.
Maybe old jobs will go obsolete but new jobs will be created
- This is rationalisation based on the assumption that what has happened in the past will happen in the future. Yes, new jobs have risen in the past, but that is not a guarantee that the same will happen in future.
- If you're still not convinced, go back to the horse analogy. Were new jobs created for the 20 million now-useless horses when cars were invented? No, they mostly became glue and dog food. There really is no reason to think that humans are magically immune.
Maybe some jobs can be automated, but not my job, it's too hard for a robot
- First, this is just plain wrong and getting more wrong the better AI gets. We already have computers that can do better than humans in a range of specialised tasks. Even my job as a software engineer will only exist for as long as computers can't write code, and knowing what I do about programming and machine learning, that day will some day arrive.
- Second, even if you take it as true that your job won't get automated away, what about the rest of the world? The fact is, there are many, many people out there that aren’t that lucky, and unless you're taking an incredibly selfish view of things, the point still stands.
This video of the Kiva robots inside many warehouses illustrates just how far down this path we already are:
Point - Most jobs are vulnerable to automation, and this has been accelerating over the last few decades
II. The Unnecessariat
The 'Unnecessariat' is a term for a new social class, taken from this article. It derives from the term 'Proletariat' which if you aren't familiar with, I'll define below:
The proletariat (/ˌproʊlɪˈtɛəriːət/ from Latin proletarius) is a term for the class of wage-earners, in a capitalist society, whose only possession of significant material value is their labor-power (their ability to work); a member of such a class is a proletarian.
The Proletariat was historically the lower-middle class, and survived only on their labour power. Now, human labour is losing its value. This proletariat class is morphing into the Uneccessariat; the class of people who are simply unnecessary for the economy to function.
One huge problem that intersects with this is that, especially in America, there is an ongoing myth of individualism, that success or failure is totally up to you and your efforts. According to one study the people most against raising taxes on the rich were low income earners because they assumed that they would be rich one day. True or not, it neatly illustrates the problem with the American dream - that anyone can succeed, that it's just up to hard work, that you are to blame for your successes and failures. So the Unnecessariat don't riot, but sit at home blaming themselves for their failure. To crib from the same post I linked before:
Goals receded into the distance while reality stretched on for day after day after exhausting day, until it was only natural to desire a little something beyond yourself. Maybe it was just some mindless TV or time on Facebook. Maybe a sleeping pill to ease you through the night. Maybe a prescription narcotic to numb the physical and psychological pain, or a trip to the Indian casino that you couldn’t really afford, or some marijuana, or meth, or the drug that had run strongest on both sides of her family for three generations and counting.
The Unnecessariat get by day to day, struggling to pay the bills. No savings, no assets, very little discretionary income to enjoy themselves. This class has been slowly sinking into obsolescence, and with no clear villain to point at they blame themselves.
Point - Automation is causing the rise of a new social class, unnecessary to the economy, that have lost faith in the system.
III. The Rise Of Trump
Trump enters the presidential race, and for the first time, someone in power is talking directly to the Unnecessariat. Someone is telling them "It isn't your fault, the system is rigged." Trump encouraged the perception that these jobs were being taken by immigrants and by those in other countries thanks to the effects of globalisation. Finally, finally this class that had felt ignored in past elections, with neither side really addressing their feeling of discontent or hopelessness, now had a champion. He promised to solve all their problems, to bring the jobs back that had been stolen by immigration and globalisation, and to 'fix' the corrupt government that had failed at solving these problems for some time.
It's the most perverse combination imaginable; a presidential candidate who recognises that there is a problem, and knows how to appeal to those who need it fixed - but who totally fucked up on understanding the root cause. Not that I'm claiming immigration and globalisation aren't partially to blame, the world is complex and there are many factors to consider. But the fact is that whatever jobs currently exist, whether in the U.S. or overseas, those jobs are being automated out of existence.
So Trump reaches through the TV screen and speaks directly to the Unnecessariat, appealing, in the most polemic of ways, to their need for something to get better. His promises are lies. Trump doesn't know how to fix it! Nor does he know what's going wrong! But the truth matters little to the Unnecessariat as long as there is a sliver of hope that Trump might be for real.
It is important to note that this would be true even had Trump lost the election, as I mentioned on Facebook earlier in the week. The race was close, and the relevant fact here is that almost half the population of America was willing to vote for him.
Point - Trump promised to fix the Uneccessariat's problems, hence capturing the election.
IV. More Jobs? No Jobs.
One of the most worrying things about this is that either both sides are ignorant to what is happening, or more likely, they know but refuse to admit it. Automation was not mentioned by either candidate in any of the debates leading up to the election. Both sides just made more promises to bring more jobs. This worries me; ‘more jobs’ is not the answer, not only because there won't be more jobs, but also because - jobs suck!
People working in the sorts of jobs that are getting automated away right now shouldn’t have to do those jobs. Making robots wheel pallets around warehouses is not a bad thing, it means that people don't have to do that backbreaking labour! The bad thing about automation is not automation itself but the lack of alternate ways to live. Humanity as a whole should be able to be guaranteed food and shelter and everything we need to live, and work should be purely aspirational. No human should work because they're scared they won't survive without an income. Work because you want to, not because you have to.
I'm not an economist, nor do I think anyone has all the answers, but in the absence of anyone else suggesting solutions, here is one way it could work out. A universal basic income, enough to live comfortably, with food and shelter to be acknowledged as basic human rights and supported by the government as such. One potential way to afford this would be with an ‘automation tax,' where those companies that are capturing outsize gains from automation pay a tax on it.
Regardless of the solution, the important thing is that it enters the mainstream conversation, and soon, before it is too late to fix. My words to a friend recently were:
"I don’t think it will get to that state [people dying of starvation and neglect] because people have a vote. If automation stealing jobs is a relevant issue to the majority population, politicians will need to address it to get elected."
It seems we are already seeing this, although unfortunately Trump managed to address the worries of the Unnecessariat without actually addressing the root cause.
Point - The solution is not more jobs, but providing a way to live without one.
V. The Future
What happens now?
There are a few ways I see this shaking out. In the near term:
Option 1: Trump is as bad as he seems. He says some silly things that either enrage foreign leaders or worse, makes some offhand comment that he won't defend U.S. allies. Oh wait, he already did this. If the United States under Trump decides not to defend their allies, then a power vacuum opens. Putin takes this as an opportunity to invade the small European nations he's always wanted to invade, as well as those territories in dispute with other countries. China invades Taiwan, something they've wanted to do for some time but backed off twenty years ago when the U.S. last asserted their protection. World War 3 breaks out.
Option 2: Trump tries to bring back the jobs that have gone to countries like China and those in South East Asia. He succeeds, temporarily, as corporations are forced to bring their factories back to America. This causes a bubble in the United States that collapses as automation continues to eat jobs.
Option 3: Trump fails to effect any change, and the situation just keeps getting worse. Next election cycle, people see that Trump was wrong and automation finally enters the mainstream political debate.
Option 4: The Sneaky Trump Theory - that he is a master persuader who will completely flip from ridiculous to reserved now that he is elected. Personally I don't buy it, based on first-hand accounts from those who have worked with him.
In the long term:
- Automation continues to eat jobs, but slowly enough that there is a chance to deal with it. Some solution is found to take care of those affected and the world goes back to worrying about climate change. Or, more ominously...
- Nothing changes. Automation continues to eat jobs. The Unnecessariat continue to die, alone and helpless to support themselves, until only those at the top of the pyramid are left. The world population shrinks and the Unnecessariat are replaced by machines.
For my part, I can only hope that the Trump Presidency will be ineffectual, and that automation happens slow enough that change can still be made in the next election cycle. Regardless, it is an important issue and one that I predict will be the important issue before long.
Only time will tell.
A category comprised mostly of software engineers and systems engineers but also including various physical disciplines like mechatronics, robotics, industrial, electrical and cybernetics. ↩︎
It is important to note that I don't think any individual company is the culprit here. Automation is something that pretty much all businesses are trying to take advantage of, and barring global restrictions on automation you can guarantee that someone, somewhere will be working on it. ↩︎
Which I am totally failing to find through google so take this with a grain of salt. ↩︎
Those that don't just up and leave entirely. ↩︎