We recently watched as four civilians flew aboard Inspiration4, a SpaceX rocket created by Elon Musk’s company. For the first time, no trained astronaut was aboard the flight. Automated spacecraft are nothing new, having been used to explore our cosmos for years. The late Jim Calvert, who used to pen this column with Bob Grover, while in the Air Force in the early 1960s worked on the propulsion system for NASA’s Voyager program that is still sending data back to Earth.
Automation provides a way to reduce human risk for dangerous work and to perform repetitive tasks without deviation. This is why it is used so much for space exploration, military strikes (drones), police action, and firefighting (robots). But perhaps the most common use of automation happens in factories and businesses across America, not to protect workers from risk, but to protect profits from labor costs.
The challenge posed by automation is not a new issue. The May 15, 1964, episode of “The Twilight Zone” dealt with the economic benefits of automation, though at a human cost, as the expert in automation at the W. V. Whipple Manufacturing Company finds himself automated out of a job, sending him to commiserate at the same bar as all the factory workers he displaced.
Today the impact automation will have on our economy is hard to determine because job losses to automation frequently result in new opportunities through demands for service and production and maintenance of the automation itself. Academic studies in Europe point out the increase in average pay as low- and middle-income workers who lose jobs to automation find work at higher salaries thanks to more technical jobs available to support the automation. However, European countries generally have a more robust social safety net that readily provides unrestricted unemployment benefits and retraining for displaced workers.
Automation has recently been combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enter new work environments, including newsrooms and law offices. Anyone who watched as IBM’s Watson took on Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy knows, AI is not perfect. But, it learns and improves over time, particularly when combined with automation to make tasks such as producing news stories and posting them online less dependent on humans than ever.
Even on the farm, automation improves crop yields, while new technologies envisioned would put high-tech vertical greenhouses on rooftops in cities to provide locally sourced food for the residents below. How far are we from farmers being little more than automated tractor repair technicians? Even 3-D and laser printers offer the hope of simply purchasing designs for the products needed and then producing them at home.
So, how do we as a society survive the relentless onslaught of technology and still thrive in our increasingly unfettered capitalist culture?
One solution to the impact of automation is access to higher education, particularly through community colleges that more readily respond to the demands of businesses for technical workers. Free community college education was a part of President Biden’s Build Back Better program, though it appears it has been stripped from it to meet the demands of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. President Biden plans to revisit this idea later in his term of office.
Providing unemployment income without state interference and paid retraining would give a path to the middle class for many Americans stuck in a cycle of poverty due to their zip code. It would also allow career workers displaced due to automation and AI to continue to live at the same (or improved) socioeconomic level, allowing them to contribute to the economic engines that are the retail and service sectors. This would grow our economy from the middle out rather than the trickle-down model that has failed after a 40-year test period. It would also allow automation and AI to continue to improve our lives without threatening our economy.
Americans often struggle between the idea of rugged individualism and community support. Too often we view social safety net programs as handouts for the lazy that reduces their incentive to work. We scream about our unemployed or under-employed neighbors getting help with food for their families but say nothing when corporations and the wealthy pay little in taxes. But perhaps we need to take a longer view in a world where many of our jobs will be at risk of being automated out of our reach.
Unlike the hapless Chief Engineer Hanley in that “Twilight Zone” episode, we must acknowledge the misfortunes of our neighbors if they lose their homes and livelihoods to automation — because we might be next.