Robots vs the middle class: everyone's endangered, white people less so

I know, right? It’s almost like they decided that world problems were what they should be solving, and not the problem of racking up a higher score than whatever phantoms they’re competing with…


I think yours is an excellent and thoughtful post and I agree with what you are saying.

I’m not sure about your conclusions here though and I think you might be underestimating the degree of change that is coming, I think it goes beyond our current understanding of productivity.

It’s one thing for Cory to point out that middle class jobs are going to face significant challenges from automation, but the idea that these “high middle” jobs are somehow safe is wholly mistaken.

All the people displaced by automation are left competing for the “high middle” jobs, so standards required for those jobs will rise dramatically, and much of the work force across the board will simply be displaced, unable to find work, because human labor will no longer be the major component of productivity.

This will be a social shift the likes of which has never been seen before.

Those left displaced by automation won’t have money, so they won’t be buying the stuff that’s produced, participating in the economy. So how are the people in the “upper middle” jobs getting paid? Automation will be encroaching around even those safe jobs.

A significant proportion of healthy adults will be unemployed within decades from now, and they will either be granted basic housing and living conditions by some yet to be devised economic mechanism, but one that is by definition socialist, or they will be a desperate army living in poverty and kept in check by jack booted thugs until they revolt.

I’m not seeing where the useful work you speak of is going to come from.


Lesson? Do things that help people, and don’t be a wage slave.

They will probably participate in an economy, just not that economy.


Required reading:


There is a third option. Lifetime education and a re-skilling. It’s something we should have been doing for fifty years now. It’s not even a drain. A skilled and educated workforce is more productive. There is this persistent myth that the jobs economy is driven by necessity. It’s not. We got along for most of history without most of the jobs that now exist or ever have existed. Jobs evolve to serve markets, markets emerge to fill demand, and demand comes from people. As long as people are willing to innovate, we can find new ways to serve one another doing things machines cannot, and relying on the machines as exponentiators. The only way this fails is if machines can do literally anything a human can, at which point we’re at the level of human-equivalent machine intelligence, at which point I doubt the global economy can survive anyway, but that will be one among many problems if you can make new people with a stroke of the old ctrl+c/ctrl+v.


That’s an interesting thought, and probably along the lines of what @astazangasta was getting at.

I guess work has been shifting toward service industries for a long time now, particularly in the west where a lot of labour has already shifted off shore.

I do notice a tendency in these discussions though to underestimate the impact automation and machine learning is going to have in the near future.

I’m glad to see this kind of discussion becoming more common, it’s a looming crisis and I think we already know that government is ill-equipped and unwilling to act.

Edit: OK so apparently the issue is so topical at the moment it got covered in Tom the Dancing Bug, where everything I said was surmised in one pithy panel. I’m the one who’s out of the loop…


Disastrously, education and job training are becoming increasingly unaffordable with regular tuition hikes and stagnant wages. Add to that higher education’s pathological resistance to diversify from the existing degree/certification model, and we’re well on our way to winding up with double-digit unemployment that will only snowball as it drags the economy down, widening the gap between prices and spending power eventually leading to runaway inflation. Because whether social services and/or charity keeps them alive or not, vast and growing unemployment will generate huge unsustainable costs one way or another. We’ve already watched this disaster play out in the US in emergency rooms as government failed to seriously reform health care. Now imagine that problem spread to every sector of the economy, globally.

Underestimating the impact of machine intelligence is one thing I try not to do. And it’s why education and training is our only chance of avoiding worldwide economic catastrophe. Unfortunately, the Thatcheresque blowhards currently rotating into the Western halls of power are quite happy to leave the “losers” in the lurch, because they’re too goddamn fucking bloody stupid to understand that a big dispossessed class will drag us all into the shit.


It’s at the very least also a logistical problem. Low-cost municipal car fleets aren’t going to put food on the tables of former truck drivers, but they will take it away from now-former taxi drivers.


Remember in DUNE how they got rid of computers because they got to smart and tried to kill everyone. I wonder if that sort of action is whats going to happen if we can’t find some way to allow people to be productive and have success while eventually replacing every job with a computer or drone. What if in the future inefficiency is injected in the system simply to provide people with some job to do.

Just spit balling.


Their jobs as … high school students?


Given that all the research evidence (e.g. on Roseto effect) points to the centrality of community and strong relationships for human well-being, there is also the option that we increase the value of work which contribute to the community and strengthen relationships: E.g. educators / carers / librarians / park keepers/ street cleaners etc. Work which can’t in a meaningful way be automated.

I.e. we invest in the common good, in parks / in libraries / schools / hospitals / care facilities…I know it’s just a dream, but we do have choices. There is important work humans can do, which can’t be replaced. For crying out people are paying professional huggers…

My dream is that Trump is the fatal symptom of unabated individualism (egoism / narcissism) and the destructive effect of his corrupt army of egomaniacs will lead to a realignment of our values and we will arrive in a world where we actually spend money on things which really matter.


It’s a beautiful dream and I share it with you.


In many cases, the more human aspects of care work seem to be increasingly discouraged, especially when they take up more time. Often while many jobs can’t be automated, parts of them can and a workforce can be reduced to the employees necessary to do the rest.


Fully Automated Luxury Queer Space Communism, if you don’t mind.


Yeah, this is an interesting one. Ostriches, heads in sand.

It’s been a blessing thusfar that tech is run by engineers essentially. Had it been easier to implement programing - and note I deeply believe there has always been a way, through multi-disciplinary approaches, better interfaces, and more flexible outlooks - we’d have been where we are 30 years ago.

This is a revolution driver. We will need to move as rapidly as possible to more advanced tech that can take care of our needs without monetary input. Capitalism doesn’t fit that model too well.

Enforcement tech will rise. Protecting the wealth and income, and ultimately, power, of the capital owning classes. Robocop.

But do we get to Jabba running everything, or Iain M. Banks’ Culture? People at the top find it vey hard to share. Sharing means loss of power.

I’m looking at my own job, which falls into the upper strata of the roles that will die in the next 10 years, and thinking my best way out is to automate it and see what cash I can get!

Eurgh, basically. We can do it, we can transition well, but we’re going to need to be relieved of many pre-conceptions about who gets what and when.

All these spare people - well, let’s get them onto tech programs, and get ourselves as quickly as possible away from the potential for civil war.

Not to be hyperbolic. But I’m sure you see what I mean.


I find that this interactive feature from Planet Money shakes the complacency of middle-class people who think their income sources are safe from automation. It’s a dash of ice-cold water seeing your job has a 50%+ chance of being automated away in the near future.


I started writing a much longer rebuttal to this but I realised the subject needs more time and space than I can give it here (hmm… must dust off the old blog) but I’ll leave you with this, before we get too deep into the wringing of hands and banging of doom bells if you chase the paper trail of references down to the source on this report it comes down to a 2013 working paper out of Oxford Martin School and Oxford University called “The future of unemployment” by Carl Benefikt Frey and Michael Osbourne. The authors attempt to predict which jobs are most likely to be automated, they use a couple of sources, mainly O*NET, am on-line service built for the US department of labour and also the likelihood of a job being outsourced overseas (apparently if a job can be outsourced it is highly likely to be automated). The authors themselves express some reservations over the flagging of likelihood of some of the jobs and clearly state that just because a job can be automated it won’t be automated (often for the usual reason that it isn’t economical). At the end of the document they have a list of jobs and the probability that they can be automated I’ll leave you with a few (admittedly cherry-picked by myself) ones and let you draw your owns conclusions as to how far we should be trusting the latest bit of robotic / AI hype :

Telemarketers 0.99 (can’t we just get rid of those and not replace them ?)
Umpires, Referees and other sporting officials 0.98
Models 0.98 (sorry Gigi, it’s all about the servo motors)
Cooks, Restaurant 0.96 (Seriously ? )
Animal Breeders 0.95
Door to door salespeople 0.94 (So… urban navigation, social interaction etc. solved then ?)
Waiters / Waitresses 0.94 (Come on, we are going to replace minimum wage + tips workers in a highly dynamic environment, dealing with sharp / fragile / hot objects, directly with uninitiated members of the public, using extremely variable natural language without getting sued off the the planet. I mean Willow Garages will sell you a 2 armed PR2 highly maneuverable robot for around $500K. That’s a 94% certainty is it ?)

In the interests of full disclosure I’m a robotic engineering lecturer and researcher at a UK university teaching robotics and AI, working with industry to increase automation and large scale data analytics. I have a vested interest in the robotic revolution and honestly there isn’t a subject today that isn’t surrounded by more hype and claptrap.


During the post war period, we tended to have some of the gains from higher productivity go the the remaining workers in the form of higher wages. So that even if we need half as many truck drivers, those that remained could afford to buy more framulators. and so that more people could be employed making them. Or playing violins in concerts, or producing TV shows or whatever new products and services were being added to the economy.
But since the 80s most of the gains from productivity have gone to those who manage and invest in companies, and the wealthy have a tendency to re-invest those gains instead of spending them. So that money has been circling around Wall Street blowing serial bubbles rather than adding to demand for goods and services.


The Soviet Union, with its lack of consumer goods and moribund economy, did not have much for most people to do and did not want people becoming self-employed. They made up jobs. The unofficial slogan was “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”