What if Both Trump and Sanders Are— In Fact—Powerless To Help?
By Stephen Ericson
Earlier this year my employer switched insurance providers, the fruit of contract negotiations. We went from a ‘Cadillac’ plan which pretty much everyone was happy with to having … well, what’s just under ‘Cadillac’? A Buick plan? It sounds so dirty when you say it that way.
All in all, it’s not that much different. We pay higher deductibles, and some of the ways they go about adding up your deductible is the type of thing one understands immediately after having read it and then promptly forgets. Aren’t all insurance plans like that?
But I digress… a feature of the new plan is that they aggressively encourage use of a service that sends medication through the mail, by-passing the pharmacist and saving the insurance company that much more money. How could that be a problem? It’s good to save money, right?
Well, here’s the thing: I know my pharmacist. We have a relationship we’ve developed over years. They’ve been good to me there, worked with me, helped me out in a few jams. I don’t want to cut the corner pharmacy out of the loop. It hardly seems fair. The pharmacists received training in their field, were sold on the idea that a demand existed. They passed tests, filed for Pell grants, secured loans which they now have to repay. And they do their job well.
Which leads me to a question I can’t help but wonder about: When an insurance company decides to take work away from human pharmacists, I assume within clear boundaries of law, does the same law relieve them of the debt accrued while studying for the job they’re being legislated out of? Or, failing that, is there any special consideration for workers (American or otherwise) who lose employment due to technological advances which make them obsolete?
It would seem then that planned obsolescence is no longer the sole province of machines.
The political season that we’re currently living through is obviously unprecedented, and anyone who can cut through the miasma of insults and half understood labels (“Socialist!!” “RACIST!!”) will begin to notice that the two candidates who have turned the entire process on its head who I shouldn’t have to name seem to go on about trade and to no small degree sound, well, like protectionists. After a decade of little besides what those in D.C. glibly refer to as ‘free trade’, the idea of two very vocal protectionists making such a ruckus speaks volumes about the disconnect between those of us who govern and those of us who are governed. But, with that said, that disconnect is nothing when compared to human obsolescence in the greater work place. American’s don’t want to lose their jobs, not too anyone, be they Mexicans on either side of the border, Asian child labor, or robots. Increasingly, while it’s easy to identify and vilify the former two, it’s the later that remains un or under-addressed, perhaps due to the simple enormity of its implicit, and seemingly unanswerable questions
Enormity, in many directions at once.
Amazon was recently toying with the idea of making deliveries by drone; the factory that manufactures Tesla cars uses more than 160 specialist robots including 10 of the largest robots in the world.
Robots talk to us on the phone, use maps for us and can drive a car, among other (not so) menial jobs. Those are taken for granted or are in the process of being taken for granted. However, robots have also written internet articles for respected print and online publishers like Forbes for example, a job Americans, I know for a fact, will do!
Sadly – disconcertingly, terrifyingly – articles written by robots don’t read as if they were written by cold pulsing chunks of circuit board. The following, credited to “staff,” at a popular sports website, was written within 60 seconds of the end of an important college football game:
“UNLV had 292 total yards. In addition to Herring’s
efforts through the air, the running game also contributed
146 yards for the Rebels.”
Sure, it’s a little dry. Regardless, it did the job, which 10 years ago would have been done by a human.
Narrative Science is a company whose algorithms are able to build written articles using pitch-by-pitch game data that parents entered into an iPhone app called GameChanger. Back in 2012, GameChanger produced something in the order of 400,000 articles relating to little league games. In 2013 it was expected to clear 1.5 million games. Narrative Science cofounder Kristian Hammond has said this is the first step toward a news universe dominated by computer-generated stories. He believes 90% of all news stories will be written by automation in the near future. Hammond believes that the Pulitzer prize will soon go to a computer.
Pharmacists, fast food workers, the UAW, beat writers – all go the way of the cobbler and the chimney sweep. But humans will always have the higher arts, literature, music, right?
Well, of course there are computer programs can write a novel, or a screenplay. The pertinent question in regards to the article that this human is currently typing is ‘are they any good?’ If it’s so poorly written people won’t read it and no human writer will be harmed if only in terms of employment.
The film industry has been streamlined by the use of computers to the point where the potency of their impact and originality is clearly diminished and human involvement is shrinking especially in Sci Fy and movies that emerge from video games. Computers have written screen plays though; The first one was titled: “Do you love me?”
Music I’ve encountered that was written by a computer tends to sound like it. But how that impacts a working musician depends on how the music is applied. The following music was written by a computer and could, in my estimation, be used as incidental music for the soundtrack to a documentary about, say, Silicon Valley or the stock market, thus depriving an actual human being access to an earned income.
None of this is news. Scores of internet articles have been written on the topic. Presumably most were typed on a computer by an actual, at least slightly worried, human being. It was an afterthought to the ongoing problem of job displacement due to advances in technology and outsourcing which led President Obama to make his tactfully wanting although technically accurate ‘bitterly clingers’ statement. Yes, People are bitterly clinging to that which makes them…human.
Robots don’t need time off, pay raises, or sick leave. They don’t get pregnant. They don’t need a retirement plan or profit sharing. Only frail, fragile, unreliable, and quirky human beings need those things. Are policy makers thinking in these terms? Do human beings have rights as workers above those machines also enjoy? Do Labor Unions have any stance against stopping the advancement of machines over human labor?
There’s talk across the country about raising the minimum wage, but it’s also been argued that if people are granted a higher wage for unskilled labor, companies will simply replace them. I’m thinking especially of fast food workers being replaced with a kiosk and touch screen. Do humans have a right to bargain for a wage increase consummate with inflation without being replaced by automation?
The trend is unmistakable: Foxcon in China, the world’s largest contract manufacturer employing one million workers in 2011, added 10,000 robots and have since added 30,000 a year. On June 26, 2013, Terry Gou, Foxconn’s CEO, told his annual meeting, “We have over one million workers. In the future we will add one million robotic workers.”
In 2013, the FDA approved Johnson & Johnson’s Sedasys machine which threatens to replace anesthesiologists. An emerging field in radiology is computer-aided diagnosis (CADx). And a recent study published by the Royal Society showed that computers performed more consistently in identifying radiolucency (the appearance of dark images) than radiologists almost by a factor of ten. So, less work for radiologists.
Writers, pharmacists, doctors, composers, the UAW, authors, beat reporters, radiologists and, yes, fast food workers. We’re told we are becoming a service economy. What happens when those jobs vanish?
As of now, I can’t find a bill of rights for human workers, no law or proposal that would clearly state that human labor is an important part of a functional and vibrant culture. Donald Trump wants to build a wall to keep the Southern Border secure, and Bernie Sanders voted against NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China. Has anyone addressed the inherent rights of a human being to find work before a robot?
The need for human labor is eroding.
This is a problem shared by the entire industrial world. Chinese workers are in the same un-empowered position as their American and European counterparts in the fight against their own obsolescence. The way each culture decides to deal with this lingering question will be the mark of how we, human beings, will be able to judge how much that society flourished in the true sense of the word. Not just in terms of wealth, but of actual living. My cynical guess is that not much will be done at all. Obviously the prevailing trends benefit those who would steer us toward and not away from where it’s already going. The questions remaining for the rest of us will ultimately redefine what we think of as “human rights.”