They’re taking our jobs: the robots are coming



Zayed Abdalla

Efficiency. Growth. Progress.  These are the words companies often use when contemplating the switchover to automated technology. When productivity rises and costs are brought to new lows, a company’s profitability increases. Laying off workers is part of everyday life in liberal market economies. It’s just part of its nature. However, we are approaching a new era in reducing “production costs,” one that will see large portions of the general labor force unemployed by machines. It’s certainly a win for shareholders, but what about for everyone else?

It’s amazing how human labor—the livelihoods of individuals across the world—can often be reduced to conceptual terms like “production costs,” “efficiency gains”and “human capital.” Due to this, many individuals will be losing their jobs to machines in the next 10 to 15 years.  The realization of our expendability as workers is disturbing, to say the least. However, the implications of such a truth are even more menacing. Worst of all, these realities aren’t part of a distant future but take shape today.

In the past two years, the fast food industry threatened the use of automation when labor movements dabbled with the idea of a $15 minimum wage. In some stores, these threats have become credible. McDonald’s leads the automated movement in the fast food industry through its “Panera 2.0” initiative. The initiative is already in full motion in 50 percent of its company-owned stores with this installation of touch-screened kiosks, where customers can customize their own orders.

Uber and Lyft are other culprits in the automation movement. Both companies have been pushing the taxi cab industry to the side, servicing both its workers and clients more favorably than cab companies could ever imagine. However, their rise to the forefront of the transportation industry has enabled them to look deeper into reducing production costs, and what better way to do so than by doing away with drivers? Uber, Lyft, Google and Tesla are spearheading the automated movement with driverless technologies and self-driving cars. One Columbia University study predicted that a fleet of only 9,000 driverless cars has the capability of displacing the entire taxi industry in New York City. Passengers would wait an average of 38 seconds, and pay no more than fifty cents a mile. Considering the millions of Americans employed as truck, bus and taxi drivers, one can’t help but imagine the frightening implications brought about by job losses across this sector.

How much will we sacrifice for the sake of “progress?” Is there a limit? I’m aware that countless others have asked similar questions in the past —after all, machines replacing humans in the workplace is hardly a new phenomenon. The Luddite Movement in 19 century England protested against labor-economizing technologies by destroying spinning frames and power looms. Blue collared factory workers in America’s rust belt continue to protest the loss of their jobs to mechanized processes. What makes this era of automation any different?

Never has the mechanization and automation of jobs been so extensive, affecting an array of different jobs across a diverse set of industries. Taxi cab drivers, fast food providers, tellers, insurance underwriters and countless other occupations are at risk of losing their jobs to machines. The rise of unemployment would surely require an increase in social spending, as more blue-collar workers are left without livelihoods. However the same proponents of liberal markets who protest at the idea of regulating business processes would also protest at increasing social spending for workers who have lost their livelihoods for the sake of “innovation.” The reasoning baffles me.

Countless economic and political philosophers have already considered the implications brought about by automation and mechanization, as our human agency is reduced and swept under the rug. Karl Polanyi, in “The Great Transformation,” sheds light on these implications when introducing his concept of the “Satanic Mill.” He mentions: “Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was directed in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever they might be…it should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace in which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community.” 

The fact that we could be leading our society to a dystopian reality, where gains in efficiency huddle the masses into a mindless state, is eerily possible. Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels forecasted that the constant social upheavals stirred by the bourgeois (think: the tech giants creating these technologies) constantly revolutionizing technology will eventually bring about the proletariat (laid off drivers, tellers, fast food workers, factory workers) revolution. Maybe George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were right, and the future will be a dim place for many—or maybe I’ve been watching too much South Park. Whatever may be true, the coming “automated age” should be something we should think about. Maybe it’s time we put the iPhones down and start to notice what’s going on around us.