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May 29, 2015


It may already be tomorrow in America and it is not too early to begin planning for the economic and social consequences which are coming into view as a result of the new digital revolution now clearly under way if we are to avoid “Luddite-like” experiences and other civil commotion as humans are displaced from employment on a massive scale that would make the Great Depression look like boom times. We need to have our social and economic systems updated to prepare for the massive displacement of both blue and white collar jobs now under way (but with even greater intensity of displacement just over the horizon, including skilled as well as routine jobs). The crisis point is nearing, and we should be planning our economic and social responses for its arrival.

I began writing on this topic some time ago after reading a statement from a Chinese industrialist that he was bringing robots into his factories to do tasks formerly done by humans because labor costs were “too high.” It occurred to me that if labor costs were too high in China and thus inviting robotization by Chinese capitalists (masquerading as “communists” at another level), then there must be even greater incentive for American capitalists to bring increasing robotization of tasks to their factories and shops and offices here. I was right; it will not be the Chinese who take our jobs. It will be innovation in the here and now that appropriates jobs formerly done by humans in Paducah, Atlanta, Chicago, from “sea to shining sea.”

It was an easy guess. It’s happening, and at an accelerated rate of displacement, and in some areas we thought were sacrosanct and always to be human-based (e.g., we are now teaching robots emotional intelligence, AI researchers are angling to reduce even Wall Street’s monopoly on investment advice and asset management etc.). It therefore appears that not only are workers on assembly lines and associated tasks subject to displacement, but even those humans who possess considerable skills from years of education and experience are in danger of joining the ranks of the unemployed as well.

Tom Friedman in a recent article in the New York Times reports that a recent study by the Oxford Martin School concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken by smart machines and software in the next two decades. Perhaps more interesting is the quality of the jobs forecast to be lost. James Manyika, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute noted that, contrary to expectations, “knowledge workers at the middle and the top” may be more threatened than those doing physical work.

Friedman also predicts that presidential candidates (none of whom is discussing the coming tsunami of change which is just inches away on a short spectrum in time) may not be interested in talking seriously about the future, but the future (to paraphrase Trotsky) will be interested in talking to them. He is right, and there is good reason to believe that the first waves if not the tsunami itself will hit shore during the reign or reigns of the successful candidate. Our candidates have so far contented themselves with scandals and non-issues, beating dead horses such as Benghazi and positions on immigration reform while the 800 pound gorilla of innovative impact is knocking at the door demanding entrance.

The “future” will be talking to the candidate elected and the conversation will be one-sided, and here’s why. As Friedman correctly notes, and as I have blogged before, we are in the middle of some huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics that will raise fundamental questions about the future of work and the social contract between governments and their people, and employees and employers.

I have blogged earlier that ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden in Judeo-Christian lore and were thereafter required to earn their bread “by the sweat of their brow(s)” as reinforced by the so-called “Protestant work ethic” of no work – no eat philosophy, we have been expected to “work for a living.” Indeed right wing resistance to food stamps, medical and other such social spending (or investment) is grounded in this understanding (as though sick and hungry people are as a group lazy and immoral), but this more and its enforcement will have little to do with the coming reality. The reality will be that there is no work and that even skilled workers who thought that by preparing themselves by way of education and experience to have a leg up on those who did not so prepare themselves will number among the unemployed as well. It appears there will be millions and millions of displaced workers of all levels of skills and abilities who will be “out of a job” due to the tsunami of innovative change.

With researchers teaching emotional intelligence to robots and with robots who can now do brain surgery on fruit flies, it is increasingly clear that virtually no job is immune to robotization. Silicon Valley is now working on robotization of services Wall Street has traditionally provided in asset management etc. at a projected loss (per Goldman Sachs) of as much as $470 billion per year in profits that would otherwise accrue to Wall Street. While our presidential candidates talk of yesterday’s shortcomings and mistakes, innovation raps ever more loudly at our door and will not and cannot be denied entrance.

What new social compact are we going to fashion to distribute the wealth created by a robotized economy to the millions who can’t work because there is no work? The Protestant ethic will have been rendered obsolete, so what new mores and folkways can we devise to come up with a basis for fair distribution of the wealth to the unemployed? Will virtually all means of production and distribution be in the hands of the corporate culture? Can democracy survive? What will be the role of government? Will corporate script be the new money? 1984?

We need to “talk to the future” before “the future talks to us” because the cresting wave of innovation and change is in sight and the future is now. What can we do today?    GERALD    E

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