Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What happens when "Humans Need Not Apply?"

The above is a very interesting, if alarming, video by a YouTuber named CGPGrey, who I've subscribed to for a while now and I suggest you do to if you've got an interest in random, well-researched videos on various topics.

The video, entitled "Humans Need Not Apply," is CGPGrey's longest and most detailed video yet, and touches on a subject that I've barely heard anyone, especially our political leadership, delve into. That is how our society today is not prepared for the fact that, at some point, automation will inevitably outpace human workers and there are going to be a lot of people out of a job, both low and high skilled.

The video explains it better than I can in one paragraph, so I encourage you to watch it. I know its an old trope to be worried about "the robots taking over!" but it is a serious question that has yet to receive an answer. An automated worker continuously works, its cheaper, it makes less mistakes than human worker, and it doesn't organize and antagonize against its employers. Robots can not only do the line work of assembly plants and the like, but also low-skill jobs such as your grocery store checkout, your Tim Hortons coffee server, or even my job as a taxi dispatcher (think Hail-O or Uber), in addition to even professional jobs. Watson, the Jeopardy-playing robot, has a full time job as a diagnostic robot. Lawyers also often siphon off their busywork of discovery to robots and computers, replacing interns.

Essentially, no job - not even creative jobs, by the way - is safe from automation. That is a reality we need to deal with, and its not one we can push off to the fare future. I fully expect that within my lifetime, there is a good chance that up to 45% of the workforce, as mentioned in the video, could be out of work thanks to automation.

Now, whether that is a good thing or bad thing isn't necessarily the point anymore, because its already reality. Its a reality that political governments need to address now before the problem becomes acute - yet I really strain to find any mention of the issue in any Canadian political party platform. For the Liberal's part, I remember back in January that we had several motions regarding our flagging manufacturing sector, such as this one from the Cambridge FLA (just an example, not the end policy). It does address some issues in Canadian manufacturing, but not the main one killing it off, automation, which could also, ironically, save Canadian manufacturing by driving down costs for labour and so on.

Then there is the fact that low-skill, low-wage jobs are often the ones being targeted next for automation. When there are no Tim Horton's jobs left, where do the unemployed go from there? One could say getting an education and moving into fields that require specific knowledge and specialists, but eventually those are going to be targeted as well. It would also be a huge nightmare to try and shuffle millions of people through higher education, especially when enough of them may not have jobs necessary to pay tuition! What is our solution then, force people to go into debt to just get the education necessary to get a job just so they can then work to pay off said debt?

There are so many attendant problems coming, but no one is paying them any heed. Governments around the world have tax incentives and the like to get the unemployed into jobs, but what happens when those jobs don't want the unemployed! Are you going to legislate that businesses take in human workers and stop automation, thereby causing us to fall behind technologically and also, more seriously, in our costs of doing business; or are we going to have to ramp up our social security system in response so people at least have a basic standard of living, and all the problems that comes with that, growing national debt the least of them?

I don't know the solution, but something needs to be thought up, and soon. This is the future after all, and if anyone in Ottawa is serious about their jobs, they'll have to figure this out or watch things go to hell in the future, whether you're Conservative, Liberal, NDP, or whatever. That really is it.


  1. I watched the entire video. Although it did make some valid points, I feel the entire argument is too much of a stretch and over dramatic. There are some holes in the the director's argument.

    Even simple technology like self serve checkouts are not spreading fast. In fact, there are articles stating that major companies like Wal-Mart, Costco and Loblaws are removing these self serve checkout machines. They are not popular and the most customers still prefer to go with the traditional method. I just don't see these devices catching on since they haven't already.

    A crucial argument this video made is that technology always advances due to economic reasons and replacing most workers is economical. I don't think a 45% unemployment rate benefits the economy in any way or form. The purchasing power is reduced and there would be wide social unrest.

    The decline in the manufacturing sector is not just because of technological advances but due to globalization and the ability to get cheap labour elsewhere. Our clothing and gadgets are still made in factories with humans - just not in Canada anymore.

    IF technology somehow replaces nearly 50% of jobs... it would either be in a scenario with a different economic system (not liberal democratic capitalist) or it would just result in wide spread chaos.

  2. This is part of what I've been arguing for over a decade; the world is in the middle of a giant revolution and change. We'll only see it when we look back, but things are changing very fast.