Never mind the immigrants, here comes the bots (for your jobs)

I’ve been pulling my hair out for some time that no-one in Australian politics has been talking or even thinking about the looming issue of automation and its effect on society. A recent conversation with my local member of parliament confirmed that it hadn’t been raised once on the floor.

To make things worse, an excellent piece this week by Recode’s Kara Swisher reveals that even the architects of our automated future aren’t thinking about the societal impacts. The piece is a rallying cry with the problem boiled down to a killer quote:

“Silicon Valley is still a place of big minds chasing small ideas.”

Kara is weighing in with her considerable influence to challenge the tech juggernauts to be more Elon Musk and tackle the big stuff rather than creating widgets and services that mother us like toddlers. The mainstream media such as the New York Times and Washington Post are picking up on it too.

Globally, the issue has been muddied by a whole lot of dog whistling by the right. Their slight of hand has foisted all the economic anxiety of those being left behind by neo-liberal policies and globalism on to immigrants.

One of Peter Dutton’s more absurdist comments this year was this mind-bending double negative:

“For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language let alone English. These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that”

This narrative has given rise to the appeal of protectionism as a solution. Brexit, Trump, and (more locally) Hanson rode that wave to success. But they’re looking at their feet, not the horizon. Protectionist policies won’t do zip in the onslaught of automation that is going to cut a swathe through society.

This isn’t off in some distant future. It is happening right now. And we are woefully under-prepared. Uber’s first automated driver hit the road in San Francisco this weekAmazon just tested a supermarket that does away with service staff entirely.

As for automated cars, I love driving and riding. It’s why I own a motorbike; there is nothing like the experience of having total agency over a machine that hurtles you through space. I don’t want to give that up (though I’d prefer an automated Uber to Sydney taxi drivers any day of the week), but we will be one the of the last generations to experience it. Automated transport stands to save hundreds of thousands of lives from road deaths each year. The protests of motoring enthusiasts will fall on deaf ears.

Amidst all the discussions around the tech and who will get there first and the ethics, the big issue of enormous job losses is drowned out. Driving jobs make up for a substantial number of jobs in countries like Australia and America, not to mention the support industries that serve them such as roadside diners and motels.

Panning out to automation’s impact on the wider economy, even white collar jobs won’t be safe. Narrow AI and algorithms will soon be applied to anything with patterns or rules. And this will effect lawyers, accountants, radiographers and even doctors too.

The direction is set and the momentum is unstoppable. As Kevin Kelly said at this year’s SXSW and in his latest book, it is ‘inevitable’. But, if we embrace it, we can steer it.

Tech is anything. Show me something terrible that can be done with it and I’ll show you something equally as wondrous. The pendulum will swing, as it always does. My bet is that this will give rise to some kind of digital humanism. Kevin Kelly says automation will look after the things we don’t care for, the boring, the repetitive, the dirty and the dangerous. Naomi Klein thinks this will leave time and space for us to focus on people and planet.

It’s popular to slam and parody the hipster obsession with the artisanal, the local and the handcrafted, but what is that if it isn’t a rebellion against everything being processed, mass produced, globalised and automated? We will always crave human contact, the personal touch, the artfully crafted. And maybe, just maybe, if we agitate for it, automation might give us more time to do and experience more of that than we currently do now.

But we need to at least aim for a utopia if we want to avoid the dystopian. We need leadership, policy change, and investment from Canberra and the big end of town to smooth out the road to transition. Instead of insanely misguided ideological boondoggles like $5o billion business tax cuts (when many of the top earners aren’t paying any anyway) and a $1 billion dollar subsidy for a reef wrecking mine - let’s insist our money and smartest minds are addressing this instead.

And the only way we’ll have a hope of that happening is to demand we start having this conversation at a national level. Stat.