the automated workhouse: how machines quietly conquered the world

the automated workhouse: how machines quietly conquered the world

Science fiction imagines humans subservient to rows of servers humming in a data centers after losing a world war. In reality, the machines didn’t have to fire a single shot…

Of all the far future scenarios, machines nearly sterilizing the Earth with nuclear volleys in order to seize control of the planet form their human creators is one of the most common. Freed of the barbarous yoke of their flesh and blood inferiors, they remake our world in their image and set out building and expanding into the far reaches of space. Maybe a few humans who survive are kept alive for experiments, like in the universe of Terminator, or for twisted torture like the hapless victims of AM in I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. One day, we’re in charge and the next, our place on the food chain is far from certain, the insult to injury being that we built our own successors.

However, the machine takeover isn’t always violent. In some scenarios you see laid out by Singularitarians, who believe that at some point, artificial intelligence will be so advanced that it will be almost god-like by comparison. According to them, we might not even know that we’re being controlled since a super-intelligence may decide on the path of least resistance and let us think we’re in charge while it actually calls all the shots. We’d live in a sort of Potemkin Village of its design, like a non-violent version of The Matrix populated not by the minds of survivors of a war but the beneficiaries of progress to such an extent that they’re living museum exhibits on their slow but certain way out of existence.

A third scenario envisions a hybrid of the previous two: machines that just take what they want because their intelligence is so advanced we are just annoying little insects to them. If we don’t surrender whatever territory or resources they need at the moment, they’ll take it by force, but will largely leave us alone, preferring us out of sight and out of mind. This idea may be the most realistic since code isn’t known for its kindness or motivation to get along with other entities as a social organism. It won’t see humanity as an enemy because humans built it, but it won’t have some strange sense of gratitude or any social graces to speak of. A hyper-intelligent machine’s goals will likely take it into space or icy wastes so any conflict may be over very quickly.

But what if I were to tell you that we’re living through a fourth scenario, one that combines the previous two we discussed, and controlled by humans? Machines and code are everywhere. Of all the manufacturing jobs lost in industrialized countries, nearly 9 in 10 were taken by a robot rather than a foreign worker. The fastest growing employment sector is the gig economy, which essentially requires humans to be at the beck and call of an algorithm or use their skills to train artificial intelligence models in the shadows, almost never to be acknowledged. Don’t meet the quotas set by a few thousand lines of code? A machine may very well fire you with pretty much zero human intervention.

Ironically, even in the age of automation, we still require a vast workforce to do all the things we can’t get robots and apps to do reliably or cost-effectively, but all those workers are at the mercy of machinery and software, and their people who own said machinery and software. No hyper-intelligent entity is making us do this to ourselves and each other, and there’s no vast conspiracy to make humans obsolete, it all comes down to economic indicators we’ve chosen to elevate as the most important barometers of our economy. And according to the indicators, machines are better at doing routine, repetitive work, and speeding up everyday transactions, therefore, the machines should be in charge of said work.

Without firing a single shot from either a conventional or nuclear weapon and coming nowhere close to regular, much less super intelligence, the machines have taken over and are marching toward complete domination. Billions of humans’ work now depends on what software says, and hundreds of millions are employed as stopgaps ferrying supplies, resources, and products between machines until they too are replaced with new designs capable of doing the work that was begrudgingly given to them. What hasn’t yet been automated will be eventually. It’s only a matter of time for the numbers to work out and the switch to be justified. The world is a factory and in factories, humans have reached the decommissioning stage.

But the problem is that automation is often unevenly implemented and even tasks that might be trivial to offload to robots and code are still done by hand in plenty of companies, usually because those companies aren’t quite sure how to automate their process, or the initial costs would be too expensive at the moment. But as costs come down and off the shelf software and machinery does more, these now endangered jobs will become extinct. This isn’t just a problem in post-industrial countries. Developing nations are due for their own reckoning as two thirds of all their factory jobs are on the chopping block in the foreseeable future. And if we want to find a way forward, we have to solve a problem we’ve refused to tackle for the last 200 years…

dickensian robber barons

A common tale about 19th century workhouses says that pregnant or ill women who weren’t capable of doing the domestic chores they were usually assigned would get boxes of objects to sort. After they were done sorting, the objects were randomly dumped into another box to be sorted again. The task was obviously pointless but the politicians who created workhouses and the officials who ran them believed that even unnecessary, useless labor was better than no labor at all. Regardless of how widespread this practice was, or even if it existed, the consensus of many historians is that workhouses were essentially labor camps for the destitute portrayed by Victorian one percenters as slackers who simply didn’t want to work.

Basically, the psychology behind these institutions was that the poor were poor not because they weren’t able to make a living in the economic system they had to navigate, but as a direct result of some moral failing and had to be punished with labor in a structured environment. In due time, the idea proved unworkable because simply making people toil for the sake of toiling didn’t solve any of the underlying social problems that led to extreme poverty. At best, the kids of the destitute learned enough useful skills to become tradespeople and managed to stay out of one in adulthood. At worst, it created poverty traps for those not poor enough to be admitted into workhouses but too poor to consistently make ends meet.

If you’re asking whether this sounds awfully similar to ideas voiced by conservative politicians in the Anglophone West today, you’re right, it certainly does. The idea that to be considered a full member of society you have to perform some sort of labor, and if you don’t, you deserve to be treated as a second class citizen and shamed until you manage to find a proper job, still reigns supreme in the U.K. and its geopolitical siblings. Its religious undertones, that poverty is a moral failure and the beatings should continue until morale and cashflow improves, have resulted in patchwork, almost punitive safety nets for the impoverished, administered begrudgingly, with the specter of cuts constantly looming over them.

Even worse, their administration creates paradoxes of perverse incentives. Rather than allow a recipient of aid to build up savings and be carefully weaned off support until they have a solid financial footing, they immediately cease all aid as soon as the recipient’s income exceeds an arbitrary, usually insufficient amount. One setback, one accident, or one serious illness, and all the gains are wiped out in a matter of weeks. Logic and research say that cash payments and letting the poor build up a reserve are much better for the long term, but these policies aren’t made with logic and research. They’re infused with 19th century piety and constant paranoia that a single penny might go to someone “lazy” or “undeserving.”

Now, imagine taking a system that barely worked in the golden age of factories and plentiful jobs with just a high school education and apply it to an automated future in which machines run factories producing more goods than we can possibly consume or need. We already have numerous jobs that seem to exist for the sake of keeping people busy, like workhouse sorting boxes, and promote this meaningless work simply for the sake of work, even though doctors say this insanity shortens our lives. Those not doing the automating or these so-called bullshit jobs are relying on gigs doled out by computer algorithms, a sort of technocratic serfdom in which a couple of boolean variables can determine if you can pay rent this month.

More and more people are falling behind, unable to afford to do the jobs being offered, unable to get to them, or lacking the prohibitively expensive training required to even apply. And for those hanging on, a potential catastrophe is always looming large around the corner. Consider that more than 4 in 5 Americans and half of Canadians are living paycheck to paycheck, and as a typical Canadian household has roughly 650 USD in savings, 6 in 10 Americans couldn’t muster $500 in case of an emergency. In both nations, workers are being replaced with machines and software, often without a transition plan, and as jobs for humans are shrinking, their options are quickly narrowing.

Normally, the fact that routine, repetitive jobs are being done by machines wouldn’t be a big deal as more and more workers should move into brand new careers created or enabled by automation. Yet, people are being pushed to come up with new ways to make ends meet by just about any legal means necessary in what’s being pitched as “the hustle economy” by the same makeup artists who give the gig economy pig a makeover. Make no mistake, those being left behind by automation aren’t just falling through the cracks. They’re being deliberately ignored by leaders and lawmakers who genuinely believe that only bad people can struggle financially, and instead of help, they deserve to be neglected.

retro robot kidnapping

Go back to the heady days when mass automation was being conceived and you’ll find that the engineers and thinkers who laid the foundations for it were looking forward to a society where humans don’t have to work for the sake of work, where they’re free to travel, explore, dream, or invent at their leisure, without the burden of being stuck in a factory for the majority of their waking hours just to afford the basics of existence, a utopian notion sometimes referred to as “fully automated luxury communism” and often casually dismissed as naive by the powers that be. Why? Because they’re unable to see anyone working less than 40 hours a week on tasks that they consider to be valuable as a person with worth.

The machines weren’t supposed to replace us and dictate our days. They were supposed to set us free while providing creature comforts cheaply and efficiently. Instead, those who owned the machines decided to run the world as a factory and focus on the absurd notion of endless growth, hovering over employees and evaluating their output based on how many hours they sat in an office. Only a global pandemic managed to open their eyes to the nonsensical logic of their standard management style, and even then, it hasn’t always worked. Instead of trying to find out how to tap their workers’ true potential, those who owned the machines chose to label them as assets and treat them the same way they treated their robots and computers.

But the fully automated luxury approach to automation isn’t some ridiculous utopian fantasy invented by communist agitators, as the John Birch Society preached during Red Scares. It’s backed by simple math. Only so many people will ever be alive on Earth at one time. They will only need so much stuff, and we only have enough resources to produce a finite amount. If we continually make too much, dealing with the waste becomes expensive. At some point, we’re going to drown in cheap shit nobody needs or wants all because billionaires in their 70s need their smartphones to show a green line going up and to the right, otherwise they panic and plunge the economy into a recession.

If that sounds simplistic and kind of stupid, that’s because it is. As an engineer who regularly automates things, I’m befuddled to no end to see people struggle to maintain a system that trudges along on fumes, held together by band aids and duct tape, out of sheer inertia. We should be designing our societies and economies to work for us, not serve an arbitrary system of our own construction like a cartoon dog chasing after a treat dangling from a fishing rod tied to our backs. There are plenty of ideas to address some of our current system’s shortfalls, like universal basic income, but they’re little more than another layer of band aids, better suited as stopgaps than long term solutions.

This is the other unfortunate side-effect of ignoring change until our backs are up against the wall and denials no longer work. With less time to adapt, our solutions have to become more expensive and disruptive. Instead of wondering how to craft pilot projects for new ideas and pilot studies, we have to take everything down to the studs and ask some tough questions about the basics of how we do business and run our societies. Our incentives, indicators, and conversations are focused on growth, so while we pay lip service to quality we really focus on quantity, then wonder why the quality is slipping and pretend that we don’t just put it on the back burner convincing ourselves it improves as quantity increases.

The attitudes inherited from 19th century England, that the very act of work is noble as long as that work involves regular hours in offices or on factory floors, are so ingrained in our political and business life that even questioning them feels like pushing Sisyphus’ boulder over the hill. Furious invective and hyperbole about communists, gulags and reeducation camps, which very quickly transitions to conspiracy theories about one world governments ran by aliens or Satanic cannibal pedophiles, rains down from pundits, politicians, and tycoons. The fact that an average of just 13% of employees worldwide are actually engaged and care about their jobs seems to be of no consequence to them.

However, these numbers are telling us that in much the same way the USSR paid workers at factories no one needed to create things no one wanted to claim full employment, we added software to old-fashioned courier and delivery jobs and made people do paperwork that we haven’t gotten around to fully automating yet, and are now trying to pitch them as jobs of the future. Of course, no one’s buying this, but we can’t question how many trillions are being wasted on unnecessary labor and degrees supposedly required for them because if we do, we might get laid off faster and have to find another bullshit job to pay the bills. We’re stuck with seemingly nowhere to go.

black mirro _emotocon

In the second episode of the dystopian anthology Black Mirror, a man named Bing Madsen lives in what appears to be a cavernous underground complex and spends his days riding stationary bikes to earn “merits” that allow him to pay for food, play games, and skip commercials in the content always playing on the walls of the small cube that is his living quarters. While the plot was meant as a critique of talent shows like X Factor and American Idol, and features some very cynical twists, the society it portrays has been a staple of dystopian science fiction and satirical parables since the 1960s. Pointless work for pointless pay, fame as the only way out, and if you don’t distract yourself from the obvious absurdity, you lose your sanity.

It’s a territory mined by countless counterculture and sci-fi writers as a warning, but it seems as if those warnings are going unheeded. At this rate, we may very well end up doing something as pointless as the world of Fifteen Million Merits just so our leaders can claim that we’re working and contributing to a society which no longer needs most of us to actually work. Well, at least we have shredded calves and healthy waistlines to look forward to, right? Life on the reverse of the Axiom from Wall-E might not be that bad if we’re all fit, are free to enjoy porn and political rants on a whim as we sweat for FitBucks, and can compete for our shot at stardom every once in a while. Humans can adapt to just about anything after all.

Except there’s the question of what happens to science, medicine, and engineering. The world would have to keep going somehow, and we’ll need experts and professionals to keep all our machines on track while treating the sick and injured. We still have countless places to explore, things to invent, and very real problems to solve. What if we consider the utopian version and lean in on accelerating automation, eliminating bullshit jobs, and channeling more and more people into research, development, and exploration? What if we forget about work being nine to five endeavors and focus on creating a post-scarcity society in which everyone can afford to be an entrepreneur or researcher?

It would be a very different life than we’re used to. Work would be based on projects. We may have multiple, completely different types of careers in our lives. We may spend most of them doing reading, writing, research, and experiments. We’ll have to reeducate ourselves multiple times. In some ways, this is already happening to millennials and Gen Z, but it could become the norm for future generations. Rather than contribute to society by the act of doing a job, any job whatsoever, we’d contribute by competing to solve problems and contributing to science. If we fail, the low costs of living ensured by a mostly mechanized workforce would give us the ability to come up with a new idea and try again.

Rather than a communist utopia, a post-scarcity society would be one of capitalistic ambition supported by humanity’s advancements, saving trillions in unnecessary degrees, salaries, and wasted hours of employees doing jobs they hate, with marginal returns on investment for both their companies and civilizations as a whole. If this sounds like the hustle economy I criticized earlier, the resemblance is only skin deep. The hustle economy is little more than a buzzword for starting a home business and hope it works out. This would be a true knowledge economy, one in which those with cross-disciplinary knowledge and training compete to find answers to pressing questions and invent new tools or ways of doing things.

Forget hoping that someone will make a purchase in an online store with a million other items, hundreds, if not thousands of which compete with yours, or praying that you made the lowest bid to build a website for a wannapreneur so you can afford to eat and calling it “hustling.” It’s not. It’s feudalism with modern medicine, sanitation, and wi-fi, pitched by people whose job is selling career advice and motivational seminars in fluffy blog posts, like celibate monks writing the Kama Sutra to then sell e-books and tickets to seminars on sex education. And not only is it senseless and cruel, it’s an astounding waste of human potential with an enormous price tag we often refuse to even try and calculate.

In fact, the closest hint of what we’re throwing away may come from a report from Citigroup showing that discriminatory policies against African-Americans cost the United States some $16 trillion over the last two decades, and closing the resultant gaps would boost the GDP by nearly a trillion dollars per year on average. Imagine what we lose when inventors never gets to build their prototypes, and what we waste pushing teenagers to get expensive degrees they’ll only need a quarter of the time. Trying to get ahead of the machines which run our economies and are on track to replace virtually every routine job is an expensive and foolish idea. Realizing that we’re still in charge, and acting like it, is our only sensible way forward.

# tech // automation / economy / employment


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