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!