Replaced by the Robot

I was reading about the rapid disappearance of journalism jobs across the land (“another community newspaper closes” etc.) and began wondering whether it was us armchair philosophers, DIY writers, and opinionated bloggers who were driving journeymen journalists out of their jobs. Then I read about computer programmes that write political speeches, and others that write novels based on certain inputs, and I didn’t forget Google that serves up every fact we need, and I realized that the machine, or the robot, would soon replace all writers.

I recently observed a 30-something talking to her best friend, Siri, Apple’s automated assistant, who would serve up everything this human asked for, in the most polite manner—well, almost everything. During that short interval of observation, Siri provided answers to several general knowledge questions, served up the latest updates on current political issues, read poetry, clarified literature, but when mischievously asked, “Siri, do you ever have sex?”, answered demurely, “Now, you know I don’t like to talk about those matters,”— a truly prudish North American response from a companion who is always available and never loses her temper. Jeeves would have a hard time competing with this one!

When I was in the computer business, not so long ago, every time we encountered a process problem caused by human error, we automated it. I didn’t realize at the time that we were sowing the seeds to throw thousands out of work. On the other hand, our bosses loved it, for the cost-benefit equation was totally skewed in favour of the business owner. First, we automated data gathering and analysis, then we automated customer service, then we automated accounting, then we automated transaction processing, and we began throwing out sales reps, check-out counter reps, call centre reps, help desk reps, and accounting clerks by the truckload. What I didn’t stop to add into my cost-benefit model was that we were not reaping a net benefit but transferring a cost somewhere else. Those unemployed workers were now going to be someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s cost, and ultimately our cost, be it in higher taxes or higher employment insurance deductions. No one was also taking into account the personal costs to the individual: the crushing depersonalization caused by job loss, and the nervous breakdowns and marriage breakdowns that spring onto centre stage during periods of unemployment.

Automation cannot be reversed. And with Artificial Intelligence going mainstream, the robots are making deeper incursions into human activity and are moving up the hierarchy of human organizations replacing project managers, scientists, lawyers, doctors and other professionals who rely on codified knowledge for their expertise. And if the two species ever get into a showdown, it may boil down to a “battle for the switch” between them and us that could either, (a) render the robots inactive, or (b) kill off the humans with some noxious gas that robots are immune to, that would decide who rules whom in the years ahead. We cannot trust corporations or governments to think that far into the future and avert a confrontation either, for the former only think one financial quarter at a time and the latter think as far as only one political term in office.

Someone proposed that the answer should be to provide every human on the planet a living wage whether they are working or not, to compensate for the robots taking over human jobs; this solution is predicated on the premise that ultimately all humans will be displaced by machines. This might be problematic, for no one has yet solved the divide of “us vs. them,” that is likely to ensue between those who choose not to work and those who do, and unless a premium is paid to the latter, the solution may flounder. And one wonders what would happen to our economy which was built on the principle of “competition?” Some Japanese companies are trying the “phased-in” approach and are assisting their human employees to automate their jobs, and, if successful, be paid early retirement. I don’t know where the answer lies but we need to give this man-made problem, just like climate change, some serious thought, with a view towards the long term.

In the meantime, just like Gary Kasparov was finally outdone by Big Blue, I wonder when my job as a writer would be better served up by a robot writing under my name, churning out articles, stories and novels at a faster and better clip than I have ever been able to do? Now, if this alter-ego is able to make more money at this gig than I was ever able to do, then I wish “him” luck, while I retire from this profession and focus on my golf game. And let’s hope like heck that golf is never robotized!

A jolt of bad news with your morning java

I think we are becoming a bunch of depressed people, unwittingly. I mean, look at that piece of converted tree pulp we call a newspaper that we reach for each morning before sipping our wake•me•up coffee. And you computer geeks, you who reach for your laptop or Blackberry instead, you are not absolved either —you are just getting your dose of bad news in just another way. Most medicines can be taken in liquid or tablet form, you know.

So, back to where I digressed, I open this newspaper and what do I get? “Young Girl Stoned to Death”? “More body bags returning from Afghanistan” “Hurricane Karl” – oh, yeah, are we up to the letter K already and September’s not over? “Employment numbers worsen” —who cares; I am not looking for permanent employment any more, gave up that foolish pursuit a long time ago. Wait, there’s more: “Economy on the tip of a double dip” – sure, blame it on greed! “Interest rates rising”, “House sales flat”, “Forest fires in BC”, Refugee flotillas bound for Canada”. “HIV infected needles implanted in gas pumps” – just squeeze and die!

I then reach for my coffee. A balancing of my mental state takes place: the low of the news is counteracted with a high from the java. And I need stronger and stronger java these days. No wonder, the bad news is getting stronger and stronger too!

We seem to be addicted to that damned newspaper. We read it over breakfast, in the subway, in parks, at Tim Hortons, in the office, in the cafeteria, and even on the way home if we have not devoured it end to end by then, just to re•assure ourselves (after our morning reading) that the world is still unchanged, that this joint is still a BAD PLACE!

Is bad news a necessity for life to continue? The low to every high? I mean, would anyone buy a newspaper that has headlines like: “Couple happily celebrate 75th wedding anniversary” or “Families celebrate Thanksgiving in record numbers this year”, “Canada is still a great place to live”, “Life expectancy rates rise”, “SID death rates drop”, “Crime virtually eradicated in Canada,”, “Cure for Breast Cancer Found?” Nah, too boring – they say!

They say that thoughts manifest themselves, and a surfeit of bad news can sometimes manifest in recurring bad events. So why bring new disaster by wallowing in yesterday’s disasters every morning?

Hey, you know what? I am throwing out the newspaper and turning on the cartoons on TV with my morning (mild) java for the next little while, at least until those damned gloomy newspapers cheer me up with some good news for a change. And I’ll probably be inadvertently joining the masses of displeased readers who have already cast their vote like me and plunged journalism into its new Dark Age. Blame the Internet, Blogging, Self•Publishing and all that bull? Nah • look at your content, brother.

The World of the Pieceworker

Once upon a time, a man (or woman) entered a job, worked his entire life, and retired not seeing the light of day in another company, not knowing the travails of unemployment unless his own company went bankrupt, remaining naive and loyal, and at retirement receiving a pin, a handshake and a pension. These symbols of gratitude were as valuable as the decorations placed upon war veteran’s chests at the end of their service, with the accompanying words, “Well done, old boy! Sorry about the blown•up leg and the shrapnel in your chest, but you took one for the team. Enjoy your pension until you die, it’s on us.”

But that has all changed now, hasn’t it? Gone are those lifelong careers. Piecework, or transactional employment, is now the fashion. While demobilized soldiers still receive a pension for the limbs and minds sacrificed in war, the guys who metaphorically endure the same kinds of losses in the trenches of the business or arts world have lucked out. They are beset with employers asking: “Can you work only one day this week—Sunday?” “How many pieces of that widget can you make in an hour? 40? Not enough. How about 120?” “I don’t care about how many books you have in you, I’ll try this first one, and if I like it, I’ll come back (if you haven’t died of hunger in the meantime, that is).”

While all this bodes well for the best products being available in the market at all times, it does not improve the life of the creators of these products who cannot be producing at their best all the time, and who cannot always be expected to outperform each other and themselves. What will happen to our piece worker with his infrequent bursts of creative brilliance? Impoverishment and neglect will get him eventually, after his best pieces have been sold.

Translating this development to the world of writing, even mighty Google has realized that it cannot forget the bedrock upon which its giant advertizing revenues have been built: content, and by extension, that quintessential piece worker, the writer. How to save this much•maligned hack is now the crusade that Google, and other givers•away of content, are trying to determine. We hear of “premium content zones” or walled information communities, where “curated content” will be made available for a fee, with writers being nurtured, protected (and hopefully compensated) for such valuable output. Is the pendulum swinging back? Is it, really?

Will we ever return to the whole•life based relationship between creators and their employers, where the former are nurtured, fed, and released to produce their life’s work, free of the shackles of worrying about when or where the next meal is coming from? Or has progress led us back to the dark ages where the baser pre•occupations of acquiring food, shelter and safety overpower the pursuit of self•actualization, back to a world devoid of creativity?

Piecework may make short term economic sense from an employer’s viewpoint. But it devalues the very resource, the creator, who produces the product. Ultimately this lame donkey may have to be put to sleep, impoverishing the farmer.