BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – The MIT Review article How Technology Is Destroying Jobs summarizes the potential on-set of the Human Labor-free Economy. Others call it the Autonomous Economy; an economy that runs without people.
This is of course an exaggeration but the fact is that since people invented tools many laborious tasks became simpler. Then the industrial revolution accelerated the pace of machine substitution of the labor. However, the big and varied tools and machines wound up increasing the demand of human labor because they changed the scale of what is achievable in agriculture, infrastructure, war equipment, etc.
Then came IT, computers and robotics. The MIT Review graph below illustrates the decoupling between Economic Productivity and Employed Labor. Automated vehicle manufacturing plants, automated warehouses, automated luggage handlers, etc. are already present. Currently at some health providers the first level diagnosis of patient ailment is conducted by registered nurses who also have some prescription authority. A large number of patients do not see an MD.
The short term outcome was angrily revealed by the Occupy Wall Street movement nearly two years ago: The MIT Review a notes that big progress in technology grows the economy and creates wealth, “but there is no economic law that says everyone will benefit. In other words, in the race against the machine, some are likely to win while many others lose.” Income inequality is a well researched topic.
However, this analysis on the effects of technology on labor is only the beginning. The hundreds of thoughtful comments below the article are enlightening and perhaps frightening.
- In the future, people may be “chipped” like animals. As a result there will be no need for laborious ID inspections at airports and elsewhere. There will be much less need for credit cards or buying tickets for transit, theater and museum admission, etc. The individual’s presence is enough to trigger a charge which minimizes the need for conductors, inspectors and clerks.
- Autonomous cars are here and they drive in actual traffic. They will take several more years to perfect but eventually there may be no need for taxi drivers, bus drivers and trash collectors.
- Mail, if there is paper mail 50 years from now, can be fully robotized. The central processing at major handlers such as USPS, FedEx and UPS is already automated.
- Distance learning is quickly becoming ubiquitous. The number of college courses is finite. A few thousand of the “best professors” in each subject may tape the lecture and offer real time updates thus reducing the need for tens of thousands of in-class lecturers and professors.
A very large part of the population on Earth is still developing, so substitution of labor will take a long time because it takes an advanced and rich economy with the knowledge and capital base to develop the substitution, and eventually result in gross social instability as unemployment departs the tolerable 10% and moves to 30% or more.
If the means are found to control social instability, accelerating substitution is not sustainable unless regional Uber Governments are formed that control all the machines and humans on a continental scale. The central authority will regulate human birth rate, goods consumption and life duration, to keep a balance. Not surprisingly national and local policies for such control of human activity already exist.
One of the long term effects of unemployment (and draconian controls) is lower birth rate. This puts the Earth on a more sustainable path because the current path of population growth and consumption is clearly unsustainable.
There is also some likelihood that an electromagnetic pulse or an IT superbug will render this interconnected IT and automation useless. At that point, the remaining third world populations will have a distinct advantage.
The most likely short term outcome is that the recently observed trend of accelerating income disparity and unemployment will continue. The regulation of automation may follow to control unemployment and social instability.
The long term outcome has been postulated by MIT researchers since the early 1970s: For many reasons such as technological substitution, energy availability and cost, climate change combined with food production for an ever increasing population will produce a vast global imbalance. As a result, around 2030 they predicted, there will be a global reduction of the standard of living and population.