Industrial automatons have been on the march for years, devouring the middle-class job opportunities of factory workers. But this time is different.
If you think your family’s future is safe because you don’t rely on factory work, think again. Rapid advances in AI have already turned yesterday’s science fiction into today’s brave new “creative destruction” – the constant churn of economic and cultural innovations that destroy existing ways of doing things. A network of inventors and investors, hundreds of university engineering and math departments, thousands of government-funded research projects, countless freelance innovators and the entire corporate establishment are “re-inventing” practically every workplace by displacing humans with “more efficient” AI robots.
This mass-scale deployment of robots has already ushered in a whole new world of work. It’s a CEO’s capitalist paradise, where the workforce doesn’t call in sick or take vacations, can’t file lawsuits, doesn’t organize unions – and is cheap.
As a result, robots are rapidly climbing the pay ladder into white-collar and professional positions that millions of college-educated, middle-class employees have wrongly considered safe, including:
Doctoring. Robots have long served as surgical assistants, but today’s robotic sawbones can be the primary slicer-dicers, operating with more precision than humans. Robots are now performing millions of surgeries every year. Moreover, advanced doc-bots increasingly diagnose and choose treatments based on their ability to digest thousands of scientific articles, medical reports, patient records, etc. In 2012, Vinod Khosla, billionaire co-founder of Sun Microsystems, noted: “Much of what physicians do … can be done better by sensors, passive and active data collections, and analytics.” His stunning conclusion was that computers will eventually replace 80 percent of what doctors now do.
Delivering the goods. While online retail giants have already eliminated hundreds of thousands of sales clerks by radically restructuring how consumers make purchases, AI systems are poised to gobble up the jobs transporting those products. The first big targets are America’s truckers, who number 1.8 million and have some of the few remaining, decent-paying jobs not requiring college degrees. Engineers at Google, Uber, et al. are rolling out prototypes for driver-less trucks that can crisscross the country without rest breaks, sleep, or days off.
Amazon. This corporate behemoth’s focus on workplace “efficiency” has made it the poster-child job disrupter in the retail economy, maximizing robots to displace as many humans as possible, as soon as possible. Their massive warehouses are already buzzing hives of robots plucking millions of products from miles of shelves to fill online orders. More are coming. While Amazon staged a PR show in August around its nationwide “Job Day” event to hire 50,000 human workers, it has been expanding its current swarm of full-time robots. In 2012, it bought an artificial intelligence developer, now named Amazon Robotics, to breed its own line of androids, and by August had added another 55,000 of these creatures to its 100,000-strong warehouse workbot-force. Amazon is also pushing regulators to let it replace delivery workers with drones and is testing a chain of “Amazon Go” convenience stores “staffed” almost entirely by AI systems. And it just swallowed Whole Foods grocery chain, loudly promising lower prices but whispering the method: replacing clerks, stockers, et al. with robots.
We already have human-less branch banks; restaurants with Chef Rob Robot in the kitchen; financial firms with online robo-advisors picking stocks; hotels with cute robotic bellhops; driverless farm equipment with computerized sensors dictating when to plow, plant, spray and harvest; automated lawyer replacements for everything from contracts to divorces; computer-generated AI algorithms replacing human football coaches in deciding whether to run, pass, or punt; news reports without reporters, written instead by computers; and on and on. The Washington Post reported that the “automation bomb” could destroy 45 percent of U.S. work activities, causing $2 trillion in lost annual wages.
CEOs and other top dogs in our economic hierarchy are, of course, the primary “winners” in the race to roboticize work. They are gleaning ever-higher profits and extravagant annual bonuses for themselves by pushing multitudes of living/breathing workers off the corporate payroll. But, surprise! Maybe even these fortunate few are not immune from harm. They might take note of a 2014 move by Deep Knowledge Ventures, a Hong Kong financial corporation: It chose a robot to serve on its board of directors. Citing its superior ability to analyze and predict market trends, DKV’s human directors elected the algorithm, named “VITAL,” as an “equal member” of the board, with a full a vote on investments. How soon, then, before we have a bot-plot, with a cabal of rogue robots conspiring to overthrow an unsuspecting CEO and seize control of a corporation?