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Just how destructive is automation?

In early 2018, many rejoiced in what they believed to be a glimmer of hope for humanity in the face of rapidly-rising automation. Tesla, the world’s largest electric automaker, had reported extreme difficulties in the manufacturing of its newest car – the Model 3. The company for a long time had touted its push towards complete automation on its manufacturing lines as one that would put them at an extreme advantage, but it seemed this effort was failing. CEO Elon Musk eventually conceded that “humans are underrated”, and “excessive automation was a mistake”.

We’ve all heard at least something of the threat of automation, and this threat isn’t something that’s new at all. In fact, trouble has been brewing since the Industrial Revolution when machines first became part of the workforce; it’s only now that fear of them replacing us completely is becoming more rational to consider. A recent report estimated that up to 800 million workers globally will lose their jobs to robots by 2030 (McKinsey Global Institute). Considering that is just a decade away, these are quite troubling numbers if they are to be believed. That will leave a group 30 times the size of the population of Australia unemployed.

Tesla isn’t the only automaker to have made headlines with its automation technologies. The word ‘automation’ can actually be attributed to the Ford Motor Company, from which the term emerged in 1947 when it established an automation department. That was more than half a century ago. The big difference between Ford’s now mature manufacturing processes and Tesla’s controversial ones is that Tesla ambitiously attempted to automate everything – not just parts of the line that was better suited to robots than humans. Many experts believe that this is where the company’s troubles stemmed from feeding robots tasks that they technologically cannot complete. You see, robots were brought into manufacturing in the first place because they are extremely good at doing the same task over and over again with high accuracy. But at the moment, you still need humans to do tasks that involve reasoning, or where the task may change slightly on each repetition.

So it’s great news then, isn’t it, that there are some jobs that robots just won’t be able to do, even in manufacturing. They aren’t good at dealing with small discrepancies or unforeseen circumstances, and that’s where we have the advantage.

Despite what some experts have been saying, Tesla’s automation woes really centred around the issue of machine vision.

Unfortunately, that’s not really the truth at all. Despite what some experts have been saying, Tesla’s automation woes really centred around the issue of machine vision. Essentially, because Musk’s robots couldn’t see, they weren’t able to interpret the world around them and respond to changes in the way that humans are so effectively able to. And this is not a new problem in robotics.

This is where AI comes in. A lot of people think that Artificial Intelligence is just a chatbot, else an evil talking robot in control of the devices around it. In this case, it’s referring to the ability of a machine to learn. Currently, in manufacturing, robots complete the same task in the same way, over and over again. The problem comes when something moves on the production line, and the robot needs to adjust its position to account for the slight change in orientation of the object. Very recent advances in image processing AI has meant this hurdle is going to be overcome surprisingly quickly.

The power that Artificial Intelligence can bring to robots is something that we should all be afraid of. It gifts machines that are already faster and stronger than humans the ability to ‘think’ for themselves and adapt to changing conditions. Humans have survived for thousands upon thousands of years as a weaker species than our prey, but one that always triumphs due to our ability to think and work together. Despite this, we still choose to create something that possesses both these qualities and we fear only losing our jobs.

The truth is, automation isn’t really what we should be worried about. The nature of the workforce has been changing and evolving since the workforce first became a thing. The evolution of technology has brought many new jobs and caused countless other occupations to evolve along with it. Many jobs have disappeared rapidly because of technology, but careers the brightest minds failed to forsee took their place. It is not unreasonable to expect that things will happen in a similar manner this time around.

What humanity should ultimately fear is its quest to make itself redundant. As we have raced to make robots faster, stronger and smarter, we seem to have forgotten why we are even doing this. Most manufacturing occurs because people in the developed world want to buy things; most of which they do not actually need. Automation has risen so quickly because people want to consume faster and quicker and in increasing amounts. The price shed as a result of this shift only encourages a faster flow in the river of spending. And all of this is to fuel our own laziness, our own desire for comfort, and a desire for status which can now seemingly be earned only by buying the right things. We have become short-sighted materialists.

At some point, it has got to break.

We fight for a shorter work week. We fight for lower prices. We fight for free education and healthcare. We fight for more affordable power prices. We fight for low interest rates on home loans. We fight for high interest rates on our savings accounts. We fight for lower taxes. We fight for welfare for those experiencing adversity.

This is not a self-sustaining cycle. As much as we hate to believe it, society is not built to maintain all these things simultaneously. At some point, it has got to break.

Automation is a symptom of this dysfunction and imbalance. There has always been an instinct to make things better and to improve, and manufacturing is no exception to this. But there was a point when we stopped making things we needed, and pumped these things out at increasing speed for the sake of ‘progress’ and ‘the investors’. Having a job to go into isn’t going to be a problem in the future. The bigger problem is that this goes against our push to work less and less but for more money. Robotics and automation will lower costs to transform this sort of poor-luxury lifestyle from a dream into a reality.

And what happens then? We’ve already watched how badly we can destroy a planet. Next, we’re about to see how badly we can destroy ourselves.

In the near future, Tesla will again try to increase its automation efforts on the production line. This time, it is highly likely that they will find success. Artificial Intelligence is just beginning to develop, and it will continue to lead change in every industry. Together, the two will wipe out jobs in an unprecedented manner, but one that we will have already predicted. More jobs will open to fill the void left after this purge, and people will still work.

We’re about to see how badly we can destroy ourselves.

This article is one that will leave many strings untied. I can’t tell you when robots are going to start killing humans, or if they even ever will in the first place. I’m not able to predict when society is going to finally realise that it can’t have everything it wants forever. And you won’t hear from me how long society will be able to retain its identity. The truth is, with the same power that we can predict the future, we also have the ability to shape it.

It is extremely important that as a society, we consider not just what we do, but why we do it. Automation is going to be just as destructive as we let it be, and take just as many jobs as we hand over to it.

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