AUTOMATION AND A POST-SCARCITY SOCIETY

by Ezra Jampole

From the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

 

The fear of losing one’s job permeates the minds of many Americans, and resulted in the election of the most terrifying threat to democracy the nation has seen. While Republicans unfairly blame immigrants for the destruction of jobs and job security in the United States, the true culprit is automation — shifts in industries and economies brought about by technological advances and the widening gap in technological prowess between the wealthy educated in cities and the rural and suburban poor.

The new regime’s ideal of bringing America back to the good ol’ days is coded racism and expresses the fear of change. I challenge coal miners to ask themselves if they really want their grandchildren to perform tedious tasks while covered in soot for fifty years. I am guessing the answer is no, they just don’t know of any alternatives. Here is my answer: Embrace new technologies and industries to move forward in the 21st century.

We now have machines, computers, and computer programs that can perform blue-collar factory tasks much faster and with greater precision than the human workers who used to hold those jobs. Using machines and technology to improve quality and efficiency is a good thing: improved output per person can translate to improved quality of life for everyone. And while we eliminate those blue-collar jobs, we add higher paying technical positions in developing the software and servicing the machines.

It is not just the blue-collar jobs that are affected by new technologies. Look at my industry, civil engineering. Historically, engineers designed buildings but skilled drafters drew the plans by hand. With the advent of computer-aided drafting (CAD), documents previously drawn painstakingly by hand could be drawn and saved on the computer. (Unlike some factory workers, drafters had an advanced technical skill to begin with, knowledge of how a building is put together, which made the transition to using a computer instead of a ruler and triangle easier.) CAD reduced production time and made changing design drawings easier and faster, but it did reduce the number of drafters, not without resentment and pushback from them.

The next advance in communicating a building design to a contractor is even less friendly to drafters: 3D modeling. Engineers can now model buildings using software that allows them to visualize the structure and consider its ease of construction while they design it. Traditional drafters may be left behind by this, but the quality of building design will no doubt improve. Beyond drafting, new software and advances in knowledge of the behavior and design of buildings has eliminated many of yesterday’s calculations by hand. All of these scientific advances and technological implementations have improved the quality and efficiency of structural design.

As a failure-analysis consultant, my career investigating structural engineering failures (for example, building or bridge collapse, damage from natural disasters, etc.) is imperiled by improved structural design — but as a citizen, I would love it if my job became unnecessary altogether.

 

WHAT DO WE DO with the displaced workers? We train them in new skills, and provide a robust social safety net that assures that the wealth produced by new technologies, and the human possibilities unleashed in a post-scarcity society, are made available to everyone. The era of working in a factory and being able to afford a house and two cars at age 25 is simply over — but we can learn from that era the fundamental lesson that prosperity is best built from the middle, by maximizing the size and strength of the middle class by assuring people strong social benefits like healthcare, pensions, affordable housing, accessible transportation, and a solid education.

If people feel too old or burdened to educate themselves in another field or skill, they should not be punished for it, not when we have the wealth to take care of them. The size of the workforce that is untrained for 21st-century jobs will shrink, after all, as education includes more and more science and engineering curricula and upcoming generations grow up as native users of modern technology.

Historically, the U.S. has addressed increases in the education required to perform the average job by doing the obvious: providing that education. Prior to the industrial revolution, we provided education only through elementary school. With the transition to an industrial society in the 19th century, we provided education through middle school. Shifts away from rote assembly work and manual labor led to government-provided public high school in the 20th century. Today’s gap in incomes between the college-educated and those without college is one of many indicators that we are transitioning to an economy reliant on advanced writing and analysis skills, math, and science and engineering. We may always need lower-skill jobs, but many of them, such as product assembly, food service, and those in the energy and transportation sectors, will be fully automated in the next two decades. Thus we must begin training the workforce of the future by providing government-sponsored public education for everyone up through college.

 

WHO BENEFITS from advances in science and technology? Certainly, we all benefit from better medical technology — even if your primary source of healthcare is the hospital emergency room. Similarly, we all benefit from having better cars on the road — even if yours is a twelve-year-old, 150,000-mile Toyota.

In general, too, household devices are better built, more capable, and less expensive than they were a generation ago. Nevertheless, since the Reagan years and the beginning-of-the-end of the middle class in the U.S., technological advance has made bundles of money for the wealthy while the rest of us go into debt trying to afford what’s for sale or trying to get the education to keep up. I can see why many people are skeptical of market-driven scientific advances: They simply don’t benefit the 99 percent nearly as much as they benefit the 1 percenters.

This is why we need to carefully think about where we should seek scientific progress. Developing a new app to send text messages in a hip way doesn’t help anyone; developing technology to efficiently gather and store solar energy will help everyone.

The impact of technological advancement should be to better society overall, even if there are initially individual job-losers. Government-funded research has generally supported this goal, producing batteries, radar, computers, the internet, GPS, and useful products ad infinitum. New technologies should be similarly beneficial. But how do we figure out which technological advancements will, indeed, be beneficial, and which are most important? Where should we focus our research and development dollars? I advocate for research in areas with the ability to help the greatest number of people in the biggest way.

The biggest technological challenge facing humanity is how to prevent catastrophic global climate change, so examining and reducing our impact on the planet is a good place to start. To help identify focus areas for the technology of the future, I suggest everyone look at the website of the Earth Day Network, which has an Ecological Footprint Quiz to tell you how many earths are needed if everyone lived like you. I encourage you to take the quiz and learn about what you can do to reduce your footprint. If everyone on the planet lived like me — someone who does not drive a car, lives in an urban area, and eats meat occasionally — there would have to be 4.7 Earths. If I stopped flying, that number is reduced to 3.6 Earths. These numbers reflect what it means to live as an American. The goal should be for everyone to live as well, and the Ecological Footprint Quiz is a helpful indicator of areas in which technological advancements are necessary for a sustainable, high-quality life for everyone on the planet: energy, transportation, food, and healthcare (I added the last one, but it is intrinsically linked to the others).

We must abandon nonrenewable energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear power. Nonrenewable energy is the chief cause of human-induced, catastrophic climate change, which is leading to extreme natural disasters (again, good for my line of work in failure analysis but bad for humanity), rising sea levels, and increased atmospheric CO2. Solar and wind energy, in particular, will combat climate change and can be implemented everywhere, greatly assisting the developing world in meeting inexorably increasing energy demands.

One of the most visible and recognized shifts in technology has been in the automotive industry. In addition to the increased prevalence of hybrid and electric vehicles, autonomous (self-driving) vehicles are a leap towards the future. Uber, for example, is willing to lose money on its taxi app because it knows it has established the premier delivery method and clientele for the future of the automotive industry: autonomous vehicle sharing. Few people will own their own vehicles because there will not be a need to. We should not anticipate less traffic once all vehicles are autonomous, but there will be fewer crashes, and those crashes will have a lower probability of a fatality. Additionally, vehicle sharing should provide access to more people at a lower cost, extend mobility to elderly people and others whose driving days are behind them, and reduce the  number of vehicles we need to produce.

Advances in agricultural technology are necessary to combat the effects of global catastrophic climate change. One of the notable effects of global catastrophic climate change is more extreme climates: dry areas get drier and wet areas get wetter. This inevitably results in an inequitable distribution of rainfall and fresh water for consumption and growing food. Genetically modified foods are an opportunity to improve resilience to droughts and ensure that those living in dry areas, like California, continue to eat. We must develop a food supply that requires less fresh water.

Advances in medicine and healthcare will lead to greater longevity, but in the current system, only for the select few who can afford it. This fact makes it even more alarming that we pour enormous sums of tax dollars into medical research such as developing cures for cancer and ways to combat heart disease that may only benefit the wealthy. The U.S. should get with the rest of the developed world and adopt a single-payer healthcare system so that advances in medicine benefit the whole country.

 

WHAT DO all of these proposals have in common? They are all massive undertakings that have the potential to benefit everyone, not just the select few born into wealth, and they will drive the economies of the future. We must have accompanying policies to ensure that everyone will benefit. Single-payer healthcare, better support for the unemployed, higher taxes on the incomes of the wealthiest Americans, and estate taxes are all examples of ways to redistribute wealth — not only to raise money to invest in research, but also to level the playing field so everyone can participate and benefit from that research.

Technology will only work to serve the needs of humanity with state-sponsored investment in science and education — a prospect that does not look promising in the current political climate. Without improving technology, we are doomed to succumb to the effects of having ever-scarce resources demanded by more people. Rather than shunning advances and automation, we must embrace and adapt. New technologies will improve per-person output, improving the quality of life for everyone. I only hope that the political pendulum swings back to the left so that the government can implement progressive policies that facilitate the scientific advances necessary to ensure a better tomorrow.

Ezra Jampole is an associate at Exponent, Failure Analysis Associates, in New York City, where he investigates structural engineering failures and natural hazards. Ezra holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. from Stanford University and a B.S. from Northeastern University.