I’ve read some pro-capitalist (anti-socialist?) rants lately, some penned by people roughly half my age, that have disappointed me in their shortsightedness. I’ve also read some writings by people like Stephen Hawking – who recently said we should not fear artificial intelligence, but rather capitalism – and a raft of economists, technologists and anthropologists – who are predicting a near future of technologically driven job scarcity – that lend credence to my disappointment. You don’t have to like it, but you’d be a fool to ignore it: we’re on the precipice of a future with a very different economic landscape, and more likely than not – especially if you’re young – you’re going to be in big fucking trouble if your value system doesn’t change, and fast.
Trust me. I know. Because, on a very small scale, I’m one of those people making you obsolete.
My job title is Systems Engineer, which truthfully is meaningless. What I am is a technical solutions provider. And the problem to which I’m tasked with finding a solution to is almost always the lack of automation. My boss would say that I “streamline” things. What he really means is that I take tasks out of the hands of humans and put them in the hands of computers. I find solutions and write code all day long the purpose of which is to automate mundane and repetitious tasks. In fact, it’s not just that. I’ve written some pretty sophisticated stuff to automate some complex tasks. Essentially, my bosses come to me and say “Hey. Here’s this thing these people do every day. I was thinking that you could wrap controls around it and automate it. What do you think?”
So now, one of my daily early morning tasks is sifting through dozens of emails that no human wrote. My code wrote them and sent them to me. My ‘bots. My kids. They tell me what they did for me. What was a success. What was a failure. What needs further tweaking, and what’s running smoothly. I’ve even spent time writing a program that my programs will talk to, so I don’t have to sift through all their emails anymore. I can simply log into a site and look at reds and greens and yellows to see what flew, what crashed, and what needs tending to.
Meanwhile, my office has entered into the uncomfortable reality of having to either find new tasks for people who have lost their duties to automation, or let them go.
And what I do, it’s miniscule compared to what’s happening out there in the world. We’re entering the age of self driving cars. Drone deliveries. Intelligent online bots. Machines that can build and repair each other. In my lifetime we will reach the point where you will walk into a store where you will purchase products without ever interacting with human employees, and yours will be the first human hands to ever touch those products. They’ll be made by machines. Packaged by machines. Delivered by machines. Stocked by machines. Sold by machines. You will literally be the first person to ever touch those products. That is, if you can afford to.
Because for a whole heaping ton of you, your job is going to be automated too. Especially you blue collar workers who so love to cling to the archaic notion that is The American Dream. You won’t be needed to read meters or fill potholes or fix cars or repair air conditioners or paint houses or patch roofs or pour concrete or landscape or build homes or… almost everything. No. We’re quite honestly within a decade, or less, of all those things and more being transitioned to AI. We can already write code smart enough to suss out the complexities of all this shit and more. And trust you me, once the machines are built your bosses will be much more keen to shell out the one time cost of purchasing them over having to continue to pay you and deal with your annoying human bullshit. Because machines don’t complain. AI doesn’t ask for a raise, or need time off, or get pregnant, or have a death in the family, or expect to retire. And don’t worry if your AI gets sick, eg: broken. We’ll even sell you a machine that’ll fix your machines.
Don’t think that the people like me are immune to this inevitability. We might have a little longer, sure. But we already have programs that write programs. Someday my boss won’t talk to me about automating something – he’ll type or speak or think his variables into an application that writes his solution for him. That is, if my boss still exists. We’ll need a whole lot less bosses as the number of human employees dwindles.
So what are you going to do? How do you intend to make money to house and feed yourself? What’s your plan? Take one of the remaining jobs where human interaction is a primary component, like waitstaff? I have some bad news. Not only are we already transitioning away from human waitstaff, if we can’t figure out how to maintain prosperity in this future, who exactly will you be waiting on?
We’re staring into a not-distant future where people are going to have a lot more time on their hands, and it’s up to us to decide if we’re going to spend that time living, or dying. One of the first big steps has to be rewiring your brain. The romantic virtues of up-by-your-bootstraps hard work, it has to go away, because the opportunities to apply it are going away. How will civilization continue to be civilized when the machines take over? How will you eat? Where will you sleep? How will you afford to take your child to the doctor when it’s ill? How will you survive?
You’d better start rethinking your libertarianesque, every man for himself, credo. It could be a boon for humanity, all this free time. A chance to redefine success, achievement. A chance for beautiful things to flower. A chance for you to spend most of your waking hours no longer working for someone else, but existing for yourself and your family and your community. But if not enough of you do change your thinking, at the end of the long day you’re going to find yourself standing in the very same gray bread line as the people you wasted all all your air on calling freeloaders and moochers. And at that point, you’ll all be the same. I’m sorry if you don’t like it, or don’t want to believe it, but your feelings aren’t going to stop the future from coming.