The Robot Economy: Ready or Not, Here It Comes

by JP Sottile, Truthout | News Analysis –

September 17 changed everything.

On that day in 2013, Oxford University published an innocuously titled academic paper by two mostly unknown economists. But “The Future of Employment” wasn’t just another number-crunching exercise in opacity by a couple of dreary scientists. No, their bombshell report portended a coming robot apocalypse that could change the nature of human civilization, and perhaps even human beings themselves.

Thankfully, the forthcoming carnage described by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne isn’t a doomsday scenario where Skynet systematically wipes out humankind, or a darkly lit near-future where attractive Replicants violently struggle to make sense of their emerging emotions in a perpetually damp Los Angeles.

Instead, the economists previewed an all-too-real world where the second-richest man on the planet — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — gleefully parades around like Sigourney Weaver in a massive robotic exoskeleton built by Hankook Mirae Technology.

They presaged the impending doom from robots like Handle, the Michael Jordan-esque robot built by Boston Dynamics. Handle can leap like a superhero, can run a marathon in under three hours and, if Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son is right, will probably be smarter than you in just a few decades.

They foresaw a future with the likes of Gordon, the “first robotic barista in the U.S.” Gordon can serve “about 120 coffees in an hour.” They also predicted the likes of Otto, the self-driving big-rig designated by Uber to deliver truckloads of beer to thirsty consumers. And then there’s Pepper, the empathic, “day-to-day” companion that is not just working in airports and banks, but being “adopted” into Japanese homes … and even “enrolling” in school.

The Future Is Now

This is the “next economy,” and, ready or not, it is coming at the double-time speed of Moore’s Law. This rapid acceleration of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming “The Future of Employment’s” apocalyptic premonition — that 47 percent of all jobs in the United States may be lost to automation over the next two decades — into a solemn epitaph for the rapidly fading era of manufacturing-based, consumption-driven economics.

Dire warnings have come from Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and, most dauntingly, from cybersecurity experts who recently warned of the threat of hacked robots violently turning against people and their pets in a souped-up scenario reminiscent of The Purge. However, long before a haywire Roomba or a disgruntled Pepper comes calling, millions of workers will struggle to fend off the brutal reality of unplanned obsolescence.

This is an economy where manufacturing jobs require a college degree, artificial intelligence replaces administrative workers, automated kiosks dislodge food service workers and driverless vehicles threaten the livelihoods of up to 10 million Americans who take the wheel for a living.

This is “Industry 4.0.” It’s an economy where Amazon’s dirigible-based distribution center perpetually floats over cities, effortlessly deploying drones to deliver stuff built by robots or 3-D printers or both. F rankly, it’s Amazon’s jungle out there. Its plan to “disrupt ” the grocery business with almost human-free stores is just the next phase of an ongoing, Amazon-led “retail apocalypse ” that’s driving human-staffed brick and mortar stores into extinction. Amazon also dominates the AI-assistant market with its self-teaching, suspiciously spooky personal assistant Alexa. And now Amazon’s poised to pair its increasingly automated warehouses with a move to become the leader in the self-driving future of trucking and overland shipping.

Even low-paying farming jobs could be completely upended by robotic fruit pickers with the deft touch needed to harvest food in American and European fields. Robots are already replacing cheap migrant workers shut out by anti-immigrant policies. And new robot-staffed factories are producing modular houses, while robotic bricklayers promise to do to the construction trades what automation did to coal mining.

This is an economy where there’s “an 83% chance that workers who earn $20 an hour or less could have their jobs replaced by robots in the next five years” and “those in the $40 an hour pay range face a 31% chance of having their jobs taken over by the machines,” according to a 2016 report by then-President Obama’s White House.

And it’s not coincidental that this robot apocalypse comes at the very moment the epic economic growth we’ve enjoyed throughout the post-World War II era seems to be coming to an end. Peak demand in oil and “peak stuff” for consumer products may signal more than just growing energy efficiency and market saturation for cheap stuff. This may signal the spread of Japan-style economic stagnation around the developed world. This could be the end of the ecologically untenable assumption of limitless growth.

The End of the American Century

The post-war idea of never-ending growth emerged from the manufacturing boom that came with the “American Century.” Perpetual government investment in the military-industrial complex created a baseline of well-paying, low and high-skilled jobs that helped raise the floor — and consumer expectations — for workers, while also sustaining huge corporations like Boeing, Westinghouse and General Electric. Military Keynesian was a reliable tide that lifted a lot of boats moored to an American dream of endless economic expansion. Sadly, it also conjured up a series of costly, nightmarish wars for those who paid the ultimate price both at home and abroad.

An often overlooked element, though, is the way automation helped maintain continued growth in productivity, even as wages lagged. As the Guardian recently noted, “As of 2015, a typical production worker in the US earned about 9% less than a comparable worker in 1973. Over the same 42 years, the American economy grew by more than 200%, or a staggering $11tn.” This divergence between wages and productivity drove wealth inequality. But it also presented a problem for producers facing the declining purchasing power of their customers — a.k.a. the workers not getting the wages they needed to drive, or at least sustain, continued growth in consumption.



Reprinted with permission from Truthout