The automated path to social and ecological destruction

The destruction caused by automation has already started to outweigh its constructive potential.

Automated robots fetch merchandise from aisles at the Hudson's Bay Company distribution centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada May 29, 2017 [Fred Thornhill/Reuters]

In the mid-1980s, Max Headroom, a “computer-generated” TV personality with a zany sense of satire and an electronically altered stutter, became the world’s first Artificial Intelligence (AI) superstar. Back then, of course, computer technology was not yet up to this mammoth task, so the intelligence behind Max Headroom, just like the actor portraying him on television, was very much human.

Max Headroom was from a dystopian future in which the world is ruled by an oligarchy of television networks. In a way, reality not only met but exceeded the show’s predictions. Sure, our lives are not controlled by “advertising-mad” TV companies, but they are being overwhelmed by equally advertising-mad social media companies that monitor and record the minutiae of our behaviour.

Moreover, technology has advanced so much over the past 35 years that the emergence of a computer-generated TV presenter like Max Headroom would hardly surprise anyone today. In fact, we already have machines convincingly acting like humans – so much so that we can create entire computer-generated worlds for our entertainment and fill them with seemingly intelligent characters.

The advances in computing power, robotics and AI have enormous implications for society. Most importantly, although we are still some way away from humans becoming obsolete in the workforce, much of human labour has already become surplus to requirements.

Factories that can function with zero or minimal human intervention (known as “lights-out manufacturing”) are but one visible example of this. A couple of generations ago, a typical factory would employ hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. Today, many manufacturing facilities are more or less completely automated. The FANUC manufacturing facility in Japan, for example, functions like a robotic womb, using robots to build robots without the need for human intervention.

While full automation is still relatively rare, partial automation is everywhere – from agriculture to manufacturing. The service sector, which had long been viewed as the one sector which would continue to create jobs no matter what, is also falling prey to automation.

This can clearly be seen in the diminishing number of service sector workers required to generate wealth. In the 1960s, telecoms giant AT&T was worth $267bn in today’s money and employed three-quarters of a million people. Google, in contrast, is worth considerably more ($370bn) but employs far fewer humans, only about 55,000.

Innovations that resulted in the service sector needing fewer human workers have undoubtedly brought some benefits. For example, during the coronavirus lockdowns, millions with broadband connections were able to work from home and connect with their loved ones without breaking physical distancing rules – something that would not have been possible just a few decades ago. But these obvious benefits should not cause us to ignore the many drawbacks of such technologies.

At their best, new technologies work in synergy with humans, freeing us from drudgery and bolstering our mental capabilities. At their worst, they force us to behave more like machines in order to compete with them and keep our jobs.

However, with the way our economies are currently structured, the fruits of automated labour have largely gone to multinational corporations, their shareholders and top executives – the feudal class of the information age.

Unlike what has been predicted in countless dystopian science fiction novels and movies, humans have not been enslaved by robots. Rather, high-tech machines became the new slave or serf class. They work relentlessly, accurately and obediently without needing sleep, paid holidays, health insurance or organised unions. No wonder they are so loved by their masters.

The working classes, from factory workers to middle-class professionals, meanwhile, have seen their status corroded, with a growing number unable to find work or forced to labour under rapidly deteriorating conditions.

This process has been a long time coming and warnings about how the “cybernation” of our economies would create “a permanent impoverished and jobless class” date back to at least the 1960s.

It is a testament to the genius of the proponents of new technologies that the worsening economic reality and prospects of ordinary people have triggered far more xenophobia than technophobia, with people blaming migrants and foreign workers rather than machines and computer programs, for the disappearance of jobs and societal protections.

Socially, the destruction caused by automation has started to outweigh its constructive potential. The widening gap between the productivity of capital and labour, along with deregulation and tax avoidance by the super-rich, have led to a devastating chasm between the haves and have-nots, fomenting popular unrest and social conflict.

Thanks to unprecedented technological progress, income and wealth inequalities today appear to be higher than they have ever been at any time in human history, even though the material wealth of the poor has risen.

While many of us are primed to see the green potential of new technologies, one under-appreciated and overlooked aspect of high-paced automation is its devastating environmental impact, which looks likely to multiply in the future.

Today’s economy produces massively more per unit of human labour than ever before, which leads to enormous levels of overproduction, even if each individual item is produced more efficiently.

Keeping people in work or creating new jobs means that this overproduction needs to be matched by an equivalent level of overconsumption. This overcapacity is a major factor behind our shift towards a throwaway, disposable culture.

Moreover, new technological tools and automation have become such an integral part of modern labour that the ecological footprint of work has skyrocketed. This is also visible, paradoxically, in the most ancient of jobs – farming. For example, although agriculture only employs about four percent of the European labour force, it accounts for about a tenth of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Little wonder, then, that a growing body of research indicates that shortening the working week would be good not only for workers’ health and wellbeing but also that of the environment. Shaving a day off our working week would reduce our carbon footprint by as much as 30 percent, according to one study that is almost a decade old.

The above is not an argument for technophobia, but a plea for techno-realism. To gain the maximum benefit for humanity from technological progress, we must move beyond the narrow focus on economics and profit maximisation and look at the wider social and environmental picture.

No major new technology should be rolled out before a thorough social, environmental and ethical assessment has found that its potential benefits outweigh its potential costs. Some sectors, especially areas where human contact brings with it intangible social and emotional benefits, could be partially de-automated to preserve and create jobs and reduce alienation.

More fundamentally, the fruits of automation need to be more evenly distributed. This can be accomplished through truly progressive taxation, taxing capital at a higher rate than labour and introducing such schemes as a universal basic income for everyone.

In the throes of the Great Depression, the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes, in an essay titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, cast aside the economic pessimism of the time and predicted that we can inverse our working life, with two days of work and a five-day weekend, or three-hour daily shifts of work, within a century.

The fact that this is not our reality today, nearly 90 years after the publication of Keynes’ essay, is not due to a failure in his foresight but to our failure to exploit our economic bounty for the good of all.

“There is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy,” Keynes presciently foretold.

It is high time that our societies overcame this dread and that we collectively strive to enjoy our unprecedented material abundance through the pursuit of happiness for the many rather than the pursuit of unfathomable wealth for the few.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.