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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Honour in All Work and the Worst Jobs

All work is honourable but some jobs are awful. The luckiest among us marry jobs and passion and often have smaller houses but broader smiles. The saddest folks labour only for money and many end up struggling to fill holes in their soul with stuff. There is something to be learned from all work and perhaps the best lessons are offered by the worst jobs.

My worst job was not the winter I laboured as an Esso gas station attendant. Besides changing oil, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the place, and occasionally swiping stale chocolate bars, I would have made Pavlov grin when at the ping of the ding I jumped into coat and hat to leap to the pumps outside. With the temperature often far south of zero, I became quite adept at yawning hoods and checking oil in mere seconds and at kicking the frozen pail of ostensibly un-freezable blue goop to squeegee windshields. I had a cold all that cold winter. I received one tip – fifty cents.

My worst job was not the two summers with the Peterborough parks department. I enjoyed one morning each week when I drove the golf cart to ball diamonds around town to drag the angle iron in circles and then chalk baselines. But I also pierced garbage with a broken hockey stick with a bent nail in the end. In a hard hat and steel-toed boots, I ignored my allergy to freshly cut grass while pushing a lawn mower in circles around trees and up and down hills and other places the big tractors couldn’t go. I nodded obediently when my suggestion for punctuation was ignored and then dutifully erected thirty signs that read: No Golf Playing Motorized Vehicles. They were certainly effective because after that I didn’t see a single motorized vehicle playing golf.

When it rained, the three crews of university students were gathered under the Hunter Street Bridge where we sat in a large bunker-like room on makeshift seats with traffic rumbling above and covering us with dust. Against one dank and filthy wall lay a mountain of tulip bulbs. For several chilly, soggy days, hour after excruciating hour, we peeled each bulb and placed it in the correct bushel baskets: large, medium, small, and rotten. There were bulb wars and songs and jokes and one afternoon a guy entertained us with Penthouse letters; he inserted the word blank for the nasty bits, making each depraved offering seem even nastier still.

My worst job lasted only one night. My friend Chris and I were fifteen when we saw the ad in the paper and showed up at the Towers Department store parking lot that night at 9:00. At the yelp of the crew-boss, we boarded the ancient yellow school bus, gasped at the smell, and tried not to make eye contact with any of the scary looking people around us. We bounced in silence beyond the city’s lights to a rural golf course that in the inky darkness was as creepy as our workmates. Given no instructions, we followed the others and secured miner’s lights to our foreheads. Using big elastic bands we fastened empty juice cans to our ankles and scooped a handful of sawdust into the left one. We began following the safest looking man but in a truly impressive demonstration of the manner in which the “F” bomb can be noun, verb and adjective in a single, complex sentence he suggested that we find our own spot. It took a while, but we finally wandered to an empty fairway.

We had been promised a cent a worm. Chris had calculated how much we could make in only one night and all afternoon we couldn’t wait to begin. But now that we were there, stumbling through the chill and darkness, we couldn’t wait to earn our first penny.

We couldn’t find a worm anywhere. It was nearly thirty minutes before I lunged at my first victim. I missed him. It was another thirty before we mastered the plunge and yank needed to can one, as we began calling it. We jumped and ran when the automatic sprinklers clicked to life but then smiled when worms began appearing on the wet grass that glistened black under the August moon. We learned to time the rotations. We’d run in, can a couple, and then scamper back without getting too wet. The sawdust on our fingers kept the slippery buggers from sliding away and we learned to be quick. With a slip on the wet grass I lost nearly half my catch but we kept going.

Honour in All Work

We worked hard all night and at the horn’s blast returned to the bus. We were stiff and dog tired but stood proudly in line to present our haul to the crew-boss who sat behind a long beat-up wooden table. Some of our work mates had earned the money that we had dreamed about but I had managed to pick only one full can – 250 worms. The tough looking women with the Ukrainian accent counted out two dollars and fifty cents. Chris earned just a little bit more.

We napped on the dirty bus and stumbled out bleary-eyed and filthy. The city was shaking itself awake with cars piercing the morning mist as we shuffled across the street to the neon glare of the donut shop. We bought donuts and chocolate milk until our night’s pay was gone. Later that afternoon, Chris called and we agreed that one night of worm-picking was plenty.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of resumes but I never listed worm picker. Perhaps I should have. This evening, when I slide between clean sheets, I’ll afford a thought for folks who will spend the night standing guard, serving coffee, buffing floors, dumping garbage, and yes, even hunting worms. There is honour in all work. Perhaps there is even more in work that needs to be done but most of us would rather not do and when we would rather not do it and all for wages we would rather not accept.  Maybe it is in that work, at three in morning, with folks doing the best they can for the families they love, that lies the most honour of all.

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