I Have Seen the Enemy …
Today I spoke with my son-in-law about his recent job interview. We digressed to look at employment in general, past, present and future. He mentioned an article in which the author states that automation may replace the McDonald’s® counter clerk type jobs in the near future. That got me to thinking how I had proposed automation would eliminate all kinds of jobs many decades ago, as we continued development of various integrated technologies and developed "smart" computer programs.
I specifically remember two of my creations from the mid-1960’s, in which I used computers and computer programs I developed, scientific instruments, higher mathematics, physics, chemistry, and major laboratory data and published research results … to what end? To the elimination of jobs that prior to that time required skilled people in primarily manual, non-automated laboratory operations. I was proud of the fact that I could bend science and technology to my ends. I succeeded completely, and even changed careers once I realized how powerful computers could be in "telling people what to do" … expertly!
What I didn’t consider, and what my boss did consider, was that I was effectively putting skilled people out of work. He was not happy, as he knew how hard those individuals had worked to become as "expert" as people could be in the given jobs. Of course, he also had built a special domain per his wants. There I was, about to change the present and the future with no regard to what my boss or his other people would do to justify their continued employment. In short, these many years later, I Have Met the Enemy … And He is ME.
I went through the rest of my career creating computer-based application systems in business that would replace human judgment … and indeed be more effective and objective. I thought it cute that I could use my wits, a little math, some business knowledge and a business problem to create solutions that replaced people with superior computer speed automation in decision making. Not once did I ever think about the meaning of my work to the wellbeing of the people whose jobs I diminished or eliminated. Why, once an entire plant was shut down permanently, in part due to my computerized cost analysis/optimization of the business, which directly concluded that a major part of the plant should be shut down and demand shifted to lower cost plants. Hundreds of people lost their jobs in an already depressed area.
I don’t like me. All the mathematics and optimization in the world and the fancy computer systems do not change the fact that many people’s lives were adversely affected by my "brilliant" work. Here I am today, cursing corporate America for outsourcing jobs, and you know, I was right in there helping the cost cutters. This is more than disappointing. You see, there was no safety net to save those whose jobs were eliminated. One might argue that the responsibility belonged to upper management to find new jobs, but in the end, they did what I did, which was to consider only the objective function of profit maximization. People be damned.
How could I be so naïve as to believe that leaders of industry would have the same holistic, Humanitarian values I learned to expect from my elders, school teachers, church leaders, etc. How is it that I believed our politicians were dedicated to working for the wellbeing of their constituents? It seems that I gave myself freedom from thinking about the consequences of my work, in the belief that the business executives would take care of change gracefully and kindly. Oh, John, you naïve fool!
I left corporate America ten years ago by choice, as I had the freedom and an extreme desire to retire. I despised what corporate America had become, as management focus only on the profit motive made employment ever more onerous, with extended work hours and additional responsibilities resulting from downsizing. Indeed, prior to my retirement, job security was already becoming a serious issue for many of my fellow employees.
So now let’s forget about me and return to the matter at hand. Automation in many areas of human endeavor has been, is and will be one of the major causes of jobs disappearing. We all know about robots in automobile assembly plants. Some of us know about medical diagnosis and treatment protocol automation via expert computer systems. What most don’t know is how superb these systems are, and how much of our dependence on medical doctors could be eliminated with the addition of some monitoring and testing devices married to the expert medical systems.
Why medical expert systems? The reason is that most people think a doctor’s career to be about as secure and specialized as anyone could want. Doctors have historically been honored and admired people, both for their presumed brilliance and for their contribution and dedication towards human health. It ain’t so anymore; that is, what the doctor does can pretty much be done by computer programs and instruments, with a few important exceptions. Thus, anything less complicated than a medical doctor’s job can more easily be automated, all the way down to semi-intelligent machines doing all the farming, which is about as simple, though physically hard, as any job could be for people.
What are the major implications of this reality? The one that stands out far beyond the rest is that almost no humans are essential for anything. Let me restate that remark to help burn it into your conscious mind … most everyone is irrelevant when it comes to the importance of his or her contribution to society. Whatever you do, rest assured that your job can or will soon be done better by non-human means. Given the truth of that assertion, what reasons do we have to promote individual human endeavors that are categorically obsolete, and in particular, to pay people for doing that work? What are we to do with the people?
One might now consider the McDonald’s automation subject presented at the beginning of this article. If ever there was an obvious example of an easily automated "assemble to order" operation, McDonald’s is it. There is literally no job at McDonald’s that can’t be automated effectively, other than troubleshooting and fixing potentially broken equipment … and even that assumption may be wrong. Thus, in a world where more people than ever before are qualified only to flip burgers, do you agree that we have a problem? Do you want fries with that, sir?
If Detroit can spend huge amounts of money to perfect robots, and then save far more money by using them, to the elimination of people jobs, then McDonald’s can surely improve their earnings by dumping their employees in favor of automation. Maybe robotic versions of sports figures or Hollywood starlets can replace humans behind the counter, and robotic versions of "evil doers" scrub the floors and flip the burgers! Don’t you just love the symbolism? Okay, enough of the "it can be done" material. Now let’s move on to the more profound implications.
If people are easily replaced by automated machines, then what does the future hold for the obsolete people? As I am talking about almost all of us, it becomes clear that a strong work ethic is not a basis for future compensation or a license to eat or a good game plan. Work in the conventional sense is silly except for those few capable of keeping the automated society running and evolving. For the most part, jobs for ordinary people would have to be created and simultaneously be irrelevant.
I don’t know about you, but I am appalled thinking that I could waste a forty-hour workweek in a created job that was truly irrelevant. But what is the alternative? I am therefore I eat? How much should I be paid for doing my irrelevant job? Can I be promoted to a more important irrelevant job?
Those of you familiar with my book, Destiny, know the answer. You realize that I thought my way through the implications in this article a very long time ago, and that my "solution" was and is to upgrade Humanity via genetic engineering. You must admit my idea is the only one you have heard that makes any sense for pulling us out of our predicament. I wonder how long we will "dick around" before everyone else sees it my way?
The inevitability of our condition has been so obvious for the past thirty years, and probably prior to that, that I have difficulty spending any time listening to or valuing our presumed political, religious and business leaders, who never have openly and honestly addressed our growing irrelevance. Nobody has walked up to the plate and taken a swing at the future on behalf of Humanity. Programs to feed the hungry or medicate the poor do not address the irrelevance issue.
Meanwhile, my son-in-law worries not so much for his generation, though I wouldn’t want to be him, but for his children and their future children. What kind of major global events are likely to happen in the next thirty years, opposite our irrelevance? How can a father help guide a child into looking at possible future careers? I too shake my head with doubts and concerns, for the silence is deafening as most of us become comparatively weaker and non-essential opposite our proven technologies.
That most of us cannot even begin to understand our technologies and their current and potential implementations is most frightening, for we are then unworthy by virtue of profound ignorance to vote for or against much of anything. I may be able to say the words, "Boeing 747," I may even know that I’m referring to an airplane, but, to be brutally honest, I don’t really know anything about how to design, make, or fly one. So it is that such knowledge as most of Humanity does possess is utterly superficial and essentially worthless.
Whew! That is a large and bitter pill to swallow. I will understand if some of you are reluctant to accept the whole of my concerns, and my rather blunt and harsh conclusions. None-the-less, we have to develop a strategy and a set of tactics for dealing with the truths I’ve discussed. Our success is more than simply important. I am talking about survival, without which there is POOF! nothing …
Let us begin. If something has no perceived value what do you do to/with it? You do, of course, know the answer. Haven’t our wars taught us that simple truth throughout history? You exterminate the worthless, by whatever high-sounding creed or purpose sounds right for the moment. The general population, being thoroughly stupid, always rises to the call for honor and glory. We all want to be important, even if that means being a "patriot" (short for patsy in a riot) for a few moments until someone blows our brains (such as they are) out. Problem solved.
You don’t want to be part of that group, do you? This means that you want some effective insulation against future disasters that would (and will) threaten your life and the lives of those you care about. You have to get out of the line of fire. Yes that means you have to retreat from our great civilized areas and seek whatever wilderness is left in whatever hemisphere you happen to occupy. Good luck. I’ll bet you don’t even know how to farm or hunt. Alas, you have a lot of company, as we stopped being self-reliant individuals early in the 20th century. Or was that late in the 19th century?
Some of you do not need to retreat, as your intellect is very high. Others cannot retreat for lack of funds and imagination. It may not be too late for the common folk to become aware and to act politically to stop their demise. Alas, what I have seen in just the past few years with regard to President Bush’s popularity makes me fear that there is no hope for the common folk. They are terminally dumb and so will perish as the need for them diminishes to nothing.
As for me, I have met the enemy and he is me, to my eternal shame as a professed Humanitarian. I don’t know how to fix the job displacement problem in the short term except through drastic changes to our laws. I only know for certain what we need long term. My hope is that some force will help our wealthy and powerful to understand "noblesse oblige," so that we might minimize pain for the helpless multitudes while we are growing up as a species.