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Automation Will Be Bigger Than It Ought To Be


I really hope they don’t automate the babies.

Automation is coming — in fact, it is already here. It will be the biggest story of the 21st century, if underreported due to it being less flashy than a big natural disaster or loudmouth world leader.I say it’s already here because it’s been the biggest story for a while now. It was a big story in the early 20th century when the assembly line became a thing and factories quickly grew into massive employers because of the need for robots, but robots hadn’t been invented yet so they just paid humans to do the exact same small portion of a job over and over and over and over and over and over and over again hundreds of times daily, forever and ever, time without end, amen.

And then someone did invent the robot, and in the last threeish decades of the 20th century it was the biggest story (if underreported) again. People variously blame outsourcing and trade imbalances and minimum wage and unions and other things for the evaporation of middle-class-paying factory jobs, but the fact of the matter is that most of them have given way to automation.

Automation was a major driver in rising income inequality, in the shrinking of the middle class, in the erosion of inflation-adjusted wages, in the increase in part-time jobs and decrease in full-time employment, in the… you get the idea. The ramifications are much wider than we see. Or want to see. Political discourse is still hung up on trade imbalances (I have a HUGE trade imbalance with the grocery store but you don’t see ME crying about it) and tariffs and outsourcing. All those things matter, but not a tenth as much as jobs being replaced by robots that are more cost-effective, don’t call in sick, don’t make worker’s comp claims, don’t unionize, don’t complain about not making enough to pay the rent, eat, and pay for healthcare at the same time, don’t have bothersome events like weddings and funerals to attend, don’t have heart attacks at work which just shoots productivity for the day right down the damn toilet, and more.

Wow, human workers suck compared to workers.

But actually, there are a lot of jobs robots don’t do well. Robots aren’t very adaptable. Robots suck at human interaction. Robots aren’t creative. They just do a simple job or a few simple jobs quickly and well, over and over and over and over and over.

That’s changing. Much like computers that once took up a whole room to serve only as well as the calculator app on the phone in your pocket does today, robots are getting better at their jobs fast. They’re replacing ever more production jobs. They’re making inroads into white collar jobs. They’re heading toward being way more ubiquitous than anyone but a few technologists, futurists, and science fiction writers thought possible even twenty or thirty years ago.

They’re going to end up in places, ultimately, that they really shouldn’t be. And they’ll get there because they will have become way cheaper than now (think of how relatively cheap your smartphone is compared to the supercomputer of the 1990s, which it can outperform) and way more flexible. Adaptable.

People will be up in arms, of course, when robot nurses become common and drive out nearly all the human nurses. Or maybe not nearly, but actually all. Robots can’t show compassion, people will say. They can’t comfort the sick and dying like empathetic humans can. They can’t give the encouragement of conversation and a pat on the shoulder  and the presence of another human being.

Consider, for a moment, the ATM (or, for redundancy enthusiasts, which are apparently nearly everyone, the “ATM machine”). Reaching back to 1993, I found an article in Wired that mentions what people did not like about them when they were becoming common. People didn’t like that they were machinelike. The programmed, stilted greetings and prompts. The lack of human interaction. Sometimes, the lack of security — a human presence other than one potential victim may dissuade some criminals from striking, or at least offer up the comfort of perceived safety, where a machine does not.

But they liked the convenience. Bankers liked that they could reduce teller jobs (though my understanding is they shifted employees to other positions like sales instead of reducing headcount — but that reflects human flexibility. Remember what I said up there about automation becoming more flexible? It will.).

And now the ATM is just an accepted part of life, and hardly anyone complains about them seriously as a thing. People complain about the slowness of individual ATMs just as they complained about the slowness of individual human tellers (and still do). People complain about the fees. But people do not complain about the fact that ATMs are the way we make nearly all of our cash withdrawals and a large number of deposits as well.

Automated nurses will be like that. A couple of decades after they’re introduced, people will stop complaining about them and accept them. It will become social convention that human interaction with patients is the job of family, friends, and whatever volunteers care to look in on those without many of those.

I think that will basically suck, but if the money says robot nurses, we will have robot nurses.

The same story, over the coming decades and perhaps into the 21st (robotic flexibility has a long way to go), will play out among firefighters and police officers and short order cooks and fast food staff and store clerks and warehouse workers and postal carriers and parcel deliverypeople and florists and paralegals and lawyers and EMTs and professional drivers of all stripes and and and…

In a hundred years, I think we’ll be talking about whether or not employment numbers are over five percent, not whether unemployment is over five percent.

It will be a strange world to people like me born in the 1970s. Assuming medical science advances fast enough to keep me alive into the 22nd, which I think is unlikely (DAMMIT).


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If This Goes On: Healthcare “Reform”


This is where things could go if they go very, very wrong for the American people — not quite the wrongest. The worst case, as usual, is


And, as a Cold War kid, that image and possible end is always with me. Yep, we could end up eating squirrels and burying half our kids before they turn five, just like the old days. Traveling in nomadic packs. Living the Mad Max life until the gasoline runs out, then just running around in silly overdone armor hammered out of crap dug out of junkyards because it’s a lot easier than trying to find iron ore and making new stuff now that civilization has dug up all the easy to find metal deposits.

(deep breath)


I’m talking about, what if this health care reform deform sets a trend? This massive wealth distribution to the already very wealthy that slashes Medicaid to the bone and reinstalls lifetime and yearly coverage caps for care and calls for pre-existing condition rate hikes that will price cancer survivors and people with genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia and, you know, old people right out of coverage altogether?

What if this “American Health Care Act (AHCA) is just the beginning? (By the way, GOP? I know you’re all on this “learning and education and expertise are bad” jag, but in American English “healthcare” is commonly ONE FREAKIN WORD SERIOUSLY YOU’RE THE ONES TELLING EVERYONE TO SPEAK ENGLISH? Learn to speak and write English, but not too well or everyone will think you’re one of those EVIL EDUCATED SMART PEOPLE AIEE OH GOD RUN BEFORE IT INFECTS YOU WITH LEARNING.)

But I digress. Again. Unfortunately I’m really good at that.

What if this AHCA passes, and sets a trend, and things just keep going that “if you wanted to be healthy you’d have had sense enough to pick wealthy parents” way for a few decades? How bad could it get?

Let’s imagine. Because that’s my business.

But let’s not imagine this healthcare deform will be alone. No, it will come with other things that are developing in our society. Let’s look.

So. Boom. It passes. Very wealthy people enjoy the windfall of anywhere from six hundred billion to a trillion dollars collectively. Sockaroonie, right into the hands of people who make more than a quarter million a year, but mostly into the hands of people who make a million or more a year. And more for billionaires than for you paltry millionaires.

They squirrel a bunch of it away into accounts in the Caymans and elsewhere (I hear Russia is enjoying a vogue in certain bad-hair-tiny-handed circles for some reason).

They open some new factories in China because First Lady Ivanka (is it Co-First Lady? First Lady of Daddy’s Heart? It’s so hard to keep track) has some there and she says it’s a great place to do business, not like that annoying USA where she’d rather drop dead than have a product made. And elsewhere, wherever the labor is cheap.

They invest some at home, though, too. Building some factories, but soon enough robots can build them, not people. So, mostly buying robots from overseas. But when they build a steel mill or an automobile factory or a social media farm to send out #MAGA tweets or whatever in the USA, rest assured they’ll need dozens of people to run a really enormous factory. Mostly fixing robots and tweaking their programs. It might take a little while to get the robot fixing robots on line, like an extra generation.

The robots aren’t quite there yet, in many professions. But we’re getting there fast.

When the people who are babies now go out to find jobs — and there may not be quite as many of them as we thought, the AHCA and its successors may well redistribute more wealth upward with bigger and better cuts and outright elimination of things like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, EBT/Food Stamps, and so forth, which means higher infant mortality and more kids who die before adulthood — they may find robots doing them.

And not just the poor kids. The less poor kids, the scions of the dying middle class and the bottom of the upper class, the ones making only a paltry quarter million a year, may find their jobs being done by robots as well. It’s easy to imagine robots digging ditches and selling fries, but they can also order supplies and pay bills and manage expenses and plan advertising campaigns and handle routine legal cases and do surgery and repair cars and dispense prescribed medications.

They’re close to that today. In a generation they’ll be able to do it. Once robots are popular enough, the economy of scale kicks in as it is right now with solar and wind power, and prices drop precipitously, and then everyone will want robot workers and nobody will want humans with their messy bathroom breaks and headaches and needing to attend funerals and weddings and wanting retirement funds and asking for raises because the kid needs braces.

So not only will the money be for the top 1%, but the jobs and the healthcare will be for the top 1%. If you’re really lucky. Maybe all those things will be for the top .1%.

And everyone else?

Well, the ones with the money and the jobs and the healthcare will have to figure out what to do with you.

Maybe human servants will come into vogue and we can all get jobs serving the very rich for room and board and maybe some basic medical care. But probably not for cancer or disability or chronic illness. Servants are cheap. When one goes bad, you throw it away and get another one.

Because now life is cheap, and all the gains of society are routed into the pockets of the megawealthy, and all the cool stuff the robots make goes to them as well.

And if you don’t like it? Robots can make more than cool stuff. They can make war as well. Without risking any precious rich skin. Even the military, traditional route out of poverty, can be handled by robots and very, very few humans indeed.

There are a few million more people who can do without healthcare — or at least, who will have to, to free up some more money to give away to the already very wealthy.

Remember, this is a worst case imagining. Things might turn out better than this. But for that to happen, we’re going to have to fight for it. Hopefully figuratively, with words and protests and votes and candidates who can imagine a better purpose for our society than slashing healthcare for half of the nation in order to put a trillion dollars into the pockets of billionaires.