The Future Arrived and We Missed It

In 1957, Stockholm hosted the St. Erik International Trade Fair on Automation. The fair was a dazzling display of inventions that included new gadgets called robots. They were essentially tools that could do simple, multi-step tasks. The word robot came from a 1921 Czechoslovakian dystopian play in which machines, called robota, replaced humans. Robata is Czech for labour.

Inventor George Devol Jr. met physicist Joseph Engleberger at a cocktail party. They discovered a shared interest in electronics and robotics and the potential of the recent invention of the integrated circuit. Shortly afterward, they formed a company, Unimation, and created a robotic arm that synthesized all the current work going on in university and government labs. By 1961, General Motors had purchased the robotic arm and it was hard at work on one of their New Jersey assembly lines. It took red-hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine and placed them in neat piles. The robot saved money by improving the line’s efficiency and replacing expensive workers. GM then bought and employed several Unimation robot welders.

General Motors’ successful use of robots inspired others until, by the 1970s, nearly every thriving manufacturing company in the world had robots on their lines. Production increased and profits rose as labour costs fell. By the 1990s, robots had become so sophisticated that they were even doing jobs that required decision-making and complex thought. A giant leap was taken when robots began using algorithms to design better versions of themselves.

The Future Arrived and we Missed It

(Photo: Business Insider)

India, China, Mexico and others adapted robots to their assembly lines while also offering multinational corporations cheap labour, lax health and environmental regulations, and low taxes. Because corporations are beholden to shareholders, and not to workers or a particular country, they jumped. American, British, and Canadian factories that had provided employment for generations either shrank or closed. Empty, rusting factories and the shuttered businesses that once supplied them and provided services to haunted souls and hollowed cities stood as mocking monuments to broken dreams and an era’s end. The plants that survived did so by trading workers for robots who never erred, stopped to eat or pee, or went on strike.

Robots helped break capitalism’s cycle where production boosted wages, increased spending, which, in turn, demanded more production. It threatened the concept of consumer capitalism and, in fact, capitalism itself. In 2010, American permanent job losses were compared to new job creation and it was discovered that the 21st century’s first decade had created not a single new job. This was unprecedented and frightening.

The changes robots brought about gave rise to populist politicians who spoke to the frustration of those whose dreams of better for themselves and their children were as shattered as their once-gleaming but now disintegrating cities. People were told that others, and the “other”, were to blame. But apportioning blame is not the same as presenting a solution and anger and fear are not strategies. Those who asked the next question knew that India, Mexico, and China could close every one of their manufacturing plants and western countries could slam shut their borders to every immigrant and refugee, and it would change very little. The robots have the jobs and they are not giving them back.

In February 2017, Dominic Martin was the bearer of bad news. As the head of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Economic Growth Advisory Council, he had been studying the effects of robots and automation on the job market. He reported that due to the increasing automation of jobs in every sector of the Canadian economy, within ten years about 40% of all jobs currently in existence will be gone. Martin’s estimate was close to that of the American McKinsey and Company. It reported in 2016 that 45% of all jobs currently done by American workers will be automated with ten years.

The Canadian and American reports mirrored findings in other countries. Driverless vehicles will replace truck and taxi drivers. Automated check-in and check-out devices will continue to replace grocery store clerks, bank tellers, fast food order-takers, and hotel desk attendants. Automated and online purchasing will continue to replace independent store owners and retail sales staff. Automated robots will replace more agricultural workers as they plant seed, pick fruit, prune trees, and milk cows. Automated calculators will replace more accountants and automated tutors will replace more teachers while automated drones will replace couriers and on, and on, and on. If the Martin and the Kinsley reports are correct, by the year 2030, the unemployment rate in countries like Canada, the United States, Germany, and Britain will reach about 47%. That is a staggering number. Consider that at the height of the Great Depression, that catastrophic collapse that threatened capitalism and democracy and abetted the rise of tyrants like Adolf Hitler, the unemployment rate peaked 30%.

The changes brought about by the invention of robots will continue to change our world in ways that fundamentally change how we live and work and measure success. Capitalism and democracy will change. And the robots won’t care.

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