On Automation and our Society

Some might think that if we are talking about the effects of automation in our society that we are only talking about whether or not a factory worker will have their job in a few years, or whether or not an entry level retail employee at MacDonald’s, Safeway or Canadian Tire will be replaced by another self-service kiosk.


Imagine for a second though that we were talking about lawyers. Imagine if an organization could reduce the amount of time that they used real life lawyers. Imagine that they could get rid of 360,000 hours of lawyer’s time annually and have a system which is less error-prone, less costly and faster. One might say that I am talking about the future. However, I am not. JP Morgan announced that such a system was implemented earlier this year.


The truth is that the legal sector is on the cusp of more automation than has ever been possible. Canadian Lawyer Magazine recently reported that a Deliotte study argued that over the next 20 years automation would eliminate 39 percent of all legal sector jobs. Now some might argue that this would affect legal secretaries and other non-legal personnel. The only problem with that thinking is simple: legal secretaries are already losing their jobs. Again, according to Deliotte, “in the U.K. alone, approximately 30,000 legal secretarial jobs were lost between 2001 and 2015 representing about 10 per cent of the workforce”. Consequently, the legal work that will be automated soon is the work done by junior and associate lawyers.


This is only the continuation of a long term trend toward the increased automation of our society. If you want evidence of this, just look at the role of women in our society in the 1950s. In many firms and government agencies, women would perform the repetitive, high level calculations required by many male engineers, accountants and other STEM professionals. Women would also do the basic typing required to produce insurance policies and the General Ledger (i.e. GL) manipulation, accounting and bookkeeping that made banks work. Over the last 40 years, computers have taken over many of these careers and jobs; and the truth is that many more jobs will be automated over the next 20 years.


As computers have become more powerful and less costly, Sunil Johal, policy director at the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto, has said that 1.5 – 7.5 million Canadian workers could find that their skills are no longer needed because of rapid technological advances (including those in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics) and the potential for automating increasingly sophisticated tasks. Or put differently, it is no longer the taxi cab driver, the retail employee or the gas station attendant who should worry. It is the doctor, the nurse, the lawyer, bookkeeper and the accountant who might find that their skills are either not required or underutilized.


For example, Google has given a $1 million grant to the Press Association, a UK Newswire and leading provider of multimedia content and services, so that they can experiment with “robot journalism”. While, experiments with ‘automated dermatologists’ seem to indicate that computers are more accurate at detecting skin cancer when given biopsies. The truth is that our success in developing computers is leading to a simple and anticipated conclusion: computers, in some jobs, could replace humans within two decades.


As mentioned previously, automation has been a problem since at least the 1950s. Yet, it went into high gear in the 1970s and 80s as automation ravaged various industries. From Banking to Steel to Automobile Manufacturers, most companies put money into plants, robots and capital. We now call this automation. In a paper called “Comparative productivity of Japanese and U.S. steel producers, 1958±1993”, the authors (Marvin B. Lieberman and Douglas R. Johnson) noted that American and Japanese Steel producers drove down the amount of hours required to make a ton of steel in a dramatic manner. Japanese manufacturers, who in 1958 took more than 28 worker hours to make a tonne of steel, were able to make a tonne of steel in 7 to 20 hours by 1968. By 1993, Japanese Manufacturers drove down the required workers hours to 5 to 8 worker hours to make a tonne of steel. During the same period, American Steel Producers drove their hours down as well. While, the American worst producer in 1958 took 23 worker hours to make a tonne of steel, by 1993 most producers could make a metric tonne of steel with 3 to 7 worker hours. This dramatic increase in efficiency had a perverse effect on labour though. For, while Steel Manufacturers in both places made increasingly more steel, they required fewer and fewer people to do it.


While, Automation ravaged various industries in Canada and the US, the truth is that many of those displaced workers were able to find jobs in other industries. People did have to move from communities or accept lower paying jobs; but Resources were redistributed and society went on.


With all this being said, this wave of automation is different. For, the breadth of the automation wave that is going to come this time will not provide us with the time or the opportunities to allow for “redistribution” this time. In different words, the Agricultural Revolution displaced animal labour with machines, but left us with the ability to work with our hands, minds and bodies. While, the Industrial Revolution enhanced human labour with machines, humans were still required to run the machines, move material and make the logistic system work.  In each case, though, people were necessary to provide an input and to enhance outcome.


The digital revolution is different. For, this wave of automation will in many cases replace our hands, minds and bodies. This will mean that not only are fewer people going to be required but there will be very few harbours from the oncoming storm. Think about it this way. Pamphleteers and then Journalists found their start with the Guttenberg Press. They fought successfully against governments, corporations and various other entities. This time around, journalists might have found their ultimate foe: automation. The same will likely be true for some accountants, nurses, doctors and lawyers. Many of those people would have thought that in the worst case scenario, they could displace blue collar employees.


The only problem is blue collar employees will continue to be displaced. Just look at Amazon and Walmart. Both companies have famously automated much of their warehouse and distribution network. Through cloud computer, networking and robots, they have found a way to move palettes faster and more efficiently than ever before. Such efficiency has allowed fewer firms to gain more and more market share. So what happens when Amazon and Walmart deploy self-driving trucks or drones? This would mean dramatic cuts in employees who maintain the Amazon or Walmart warehousing and logistical systems. Changes like that in Walmart are likely to be followed by similar changes in many other Northern American Companies like Loblaw’s, Canadian Tire, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Safeway.


Twenty years ago, this would seem like a silly and ridiculous notion. But, present day experiments with self-driving cars and trucks, belies a simple truth: as machines are programmed, they can move faster than us, move more than us and do jobs better than humans can. Computers are coming to the point where they can recognize words and respond in real time.


In Japan, the idea of having robot care givers to deal with their ever increasing aging population is being toyed with; and the scary thing is that some success is being had. So in such a world where tedious mental work could be automated, one must ask what will society do with the lack of work for so many of its citizens?


I feel this is a conversation to be had in provincial capitals, like Edmonton and Queen’s Park, and in Parliament Hill; because, we are about to hit a time when many workers, blue and white collar, will find themselves unemployed due to a growing number of automated workers.


To deal with this, we need real innovation in social policy. This type of displacement in Human Activity happens rarely. The last few times this happened – the Reformation-Enlightenment, the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution – Western Society made huge leaps forward. In search of new lands to deal with the ever crowded nature of Europe, after the Age of the Enlightenment, Europe started its colonial period. In the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, rural citizens came to the cities. In each of those previous times, “work” could be had.


However, this time, things are different. For, there is not a large amount of “work” to be done. Take Canada, as an example, the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey said that the Canadian unemployment rate in 1976 was 7.1%. In 2016, it was 7.0%. Now it has not always been 7.0%. In 1983, it rose to 12%. In 1993, it was as high as 11.4%. While, in 2000, it was 6.8% and it fell to 6.0% in 2007. So, while employment has varied, over the last 30 years, it has not changed very much. Given that society doesn’t have a bunch of “new work” to be done, what happens to those people who would become lawyers, accountants, taxi cab drivers and hotel clerks now?


This is why real innovation is required. For, we can find new work, if we want to reach for new horizons.

For example, we could take an example from the Reformation-Enlightenment period and go and colonize Mars. President Roosevelt (i.e. “FDR”) could be our model and we could use these people to rebuild our cities into Green Meccas; or the Government could just provide some people with a Living Income. While, my vote would be to colonize Mars, I hope my words show one thing: we need to have a conversation about the change that will be coming. Our Politicians need to be honest with us. Our Statesmen need to dream up ideas about our future and the rest of us need to listen patiently and participate in this conversation. While, I don’t have all the answers, I do know that change is coming and I would rather be in front of that change than caught up by it. For, that is the only way for us to anticipate the problems and then care, bare witness and engage the others of our society who don’t profit from this change. Or put differently, if we ensure that all boats are raised by this change, we can lessen the horrors of social havoc which could result.

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