Is the Automated Future Finally Here?


People have been talking for decades about a future where machines are able to do most of the work that humans did. Now two economists are publishing an argument that the future is almost here, and that we are reaching the point where the jobs computers wipe out will not be replaced by an equal number of new human jobs:

Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.

During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.

As they note, the computer-driven truck is not that far away, and the success of HAL-like forms of A.I., like Watson and Siri, point toward a future where computers can replace humans at just about anything imaginable. Which is the future that science fiction and other popular culture has been predicting for a long time, and it always seemed a bit alarmist; but just because it was alarmist doesn’t mean it can never happen. There could be a point at which almost every business can do more with fewer people. Which in turn would turn all sorts of science fiction ideas into reality (though now that I think about it, science fiction usually seems a bit sanguine about what people will do in the future when computers have taken over; warnings about mass unemployment usually come from doomsday economists and such).

Well, as I said, people have been predicting this since the ’50s and even earlier. Movies like Desk Set were made to deal with our automation fears and to reassure us all that computers are our friends, contributing to a never-ending economic boom. And if computers got out of hand, there was always Captain Kirk to talk them to death and show us that they didn’t know what it is to feel, to love. Still, just because dystopia didn’t happen isn’t proof that it will never happen.

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Is the Automated Future Finally Here?

  1. I don’t know what to think about robots taking over jobs. Wouldn’t most of us be delighted to send a robot to work in our stead while we lounge around house in pajamas writing tweets? 

    As long as programmers write selflessness, charity, love your brother type code into robots and they give humans all the wealth they have produced, I think humans very happy in future. 

    I was talking about robots with the missus the other week and I was wondering – if you are married or have long term partner and have sex with a robot, have you cheated on you significant other?

      • I work in auto industry and have toured production plants and seen those robots at work. Japan and Korea auto companies use robots as well but they view robots differently than we do in North America. 

        In North America, robots are machinery owned by company instead of employees. In Japan and Korea, robots are replacing people as well but Orient also view robots as replacement for people because of declining population trends. 

        Instead of viewing robots as machinery, think of them as people replacements and distribute wealth robot’s produce to regular people instead of allowing corps to keep all the money. 

        • It doesn’t matter who owns them, they are industrial robots not androids for sex.

          And whoever pays for them, owns them.

  2. And this is why we need a new economic system, as Emily keeps saying.

    This can lead us in a few different ways. The most obvious is an increasingly stratified society, with those few at the top having to spend a good amount of their resources protecting themselves from the masses at the bottom. Massive unemployment leads to zero demand leads to economic collapse. Even though we can get anything we want, only a few people can afford any of it. This won’t be sustainable for the long term, and though it may prop things up for another century or so, it’ll end in violence and/or oppression.

    A better option is organized labour wising up and starting to push for big things for all people again, rather than just wage increments for their own members. Things like the 6 or 4 hour work day.  That would not only increase the demand for employees, even with automation, but provide people with more leisure time. Now for a lot of people, sure, more leisure time simply means more time spent watching TV or being non-productive. But considering that unemployed means pretty much the same thing with the added detriment of society having to support the person directly, perhaps that’s not so bad.  Not to mention that a significant minority might finally find they have the time to become creative, maybe build their own business, or hell, even pay attention to politics.  Of course the trick is that these shorter work days still need to be able to bring home livable wages for the people, or we’re just back in option number one with a slightly smilier face on it.

    • “Massive unemployment leads to zero demand leads to economic collapse.” This is why I don’t think the automatic apocalypse will occur. Economic collapse then leads to no need for those automatic robots, and businesses being unable to pay off the investments in such things. I suspect there is an equilibrium somewhere as there has to be enough people in the economic system to keep the machine running. The very rich can’t spend the economy into motion alone.

      • Of course there’s an equilibrium. Argentina found it, it’s called crushing poverty and a reversion to the barter system.

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