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The Coming Robot Apocalypse Looks Like a Bunch of Spreadsheets, Not Killer Drones

We're succumbing to the economic equivalent of carbon monoxide. The future we were promised, of limitless leisure kept afloat by a few breezy hours of work each week, looks more distant than ever. Our destruction by automatons is disappointingly un...

Image via Flickr user Tim Regan

Francis Fukuyama's claim that history ended in 1992 has long since ceded its prescience. These days, Ray Kurzweil claims that non-biological computing power will reach exponential growth starting around 2045, propelling humanity to its rightful destiny as a species that can cheat death itself. Whether these claims are true, or whether they're part of the same obsession with the perpetually-imminent End Times that haunts many evangelicals, is less important than more mundane realities of ever-increasing computing power. Specifically, what do we do when all our jobs evaporate?

A Robot Apocalypse won't arrive with a bang, nor a red-eyed Terminator crushing a human skull, but it's already upon us in the form of a slow, steady drip. Most of us don't even see the robots, who are generally algorithms and software programs as diffuse and impersonal as the internet itself. George Jetson worked an hour a day, two days a week. While much of his existence was fully automated, the only robot in his life was a sass-talking maid. We, who inhabit a world of greater and greater inequality (or so says French economist Thomas Piketty), should be so lucky. 

The Pew Research Internet Project asked almost two thousand technologists and analysts what they predicted for the year 2025, a future so close that it could be just after the conclusion of Hillary Clinton's presidency. The prospect looks pretty bleak. Fully 48 percent thought "robots and digital agents [will] displace significant numbers of blue- and white-collar workers," while the rest seem to believe that human ingenuity always wins the day. That rosy belief might be undercut when even Larry Summers, as big an architect of the system as they come, plainly asserts that Piketty's grim predictions of the future fail to take in the "devastating consequences of robots, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and the like for those who perform routine tasks." When consummate insiders prognosticate doom, maybe the sunnier words of people on Silicon Valley's payroll should be taken with a grain of salt.

Image via Flickr user Carlos A. Smith

There appears to be a new economic order on its way. It goes by the emoticon-friendly name of the "sharing economy," and its golden promises are legion. Sharing one set of power tools among neighbors sounds upbeat and sensible. And defraying some of your enormous rent by periodically letting strangers review your hospitality and the fluffiness of your towels is most enticing. To teachers without tenure or retirees without pensions, supplementary income might be a lifesaver.

But in some ways, that new order is crueler than even the dreariest cubicle farm. Corporate America has viewed labor as its biggest liability for decades now, and data-driven CEOs are sharpening the spear. Former GE Chairman Jack Welch once said the ideal business would involve placing every factory on a barge so that it could be towed to wherever the law was most hospitable to capital. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is actually trying to implement this. Less fantastically, so is Uber's Travis Kalanick. His hostility towards human drivers, whose contractual employment is but an expendable waystation on the way to a post-human transportation grid, is well-documented. Kalanick breezily told an audience at the CODE Conference in May that as self-driving cars become a possibility, yes, Uber's workforce will be history: "I would say to them this is the way the world is going. We have to find a way to change with the world." 

Let's be clear: the sharing economy isn't exactly the same thing as artisanal guilds. And the potential phase-out of part-time Uber drivers won't be like the disappearance of centuries-old trades, neither for its overall economic importance nor the more romantic reason of seeing age-old skills die off. Almost nobody becomes an Uber driver unless they have to—and that goes double for TaskRabbits. These are shitty jobs that college-educated people are forced into because their professions have been gutted, and any job stability they might once have enjoyed has been eviscerated. What's being destroyed here might have little sentimental value, but it's the type of contingent, piecemeal, on-call or freelance income people turn to when traditional means of employment have failed them. And even its days are numbered.

Image via Flickr user Don DeBold

You don't even have to be replaced by an actual robot to feel the heat. The New York Times's Jodi Kantor had an superb article on how major retailers use advanced software to schedule employees based on a number of factors, keeping those companies "nimble" (to use a favored buzzword) but all but guaranteeing that workers' schedules are capricious, erratic and outright destructive of their personal lives. Such invisible automation choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of [Starbucks'] 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when. Big-box retailers or mall clothing chains are now capable of bringing in more hands in anticipation of a delivery truck pulling in or the weather changing, and sending workers home when real-time analyses show sales are slowing. Managers are often compensated based on the efficiency of their staffing. 

In other words, the better you are at messing with your underlings' lives, the bigger your bonus. Flexibility, the article notes, is usually considered a boon by professionals with office jobs; for some, the right to telecommute once each week is practically expected in the terms of their employment. But as it's frequently a tool for maximization of profit at the expense of workers' income stability, its disruptive side may not appear in economic statistics. No jobs are created or destroyed if a store's employees are ordered to work 35 hours one week and 20 the next, even if the actual employees are barely hanging on. Unemployment statistics look to become even more hollowed-out and skewed than they already are.

Techno-utopians aren't confronting their immiserating dystopia very honestly. If anything, disruption is celebrated to a fault, and if Airbnb quietly tosses hotel chambermaids to the wolves, well, that's unappealing grunt work, anyway. The Pew Internet study's most pessimistic forecasters have lots of fascinating tidbits to chew on, but they essentially agree that every job that can be automated will be, a trend that will go far beyond peripheral or admin or "pink-collar" positions such as X-ray technician or paralegal—something tech's cheerleaders are reluctant to broadcast, for obvious reasons.

Whole categories of white-collar employment may be seriously undermined. One place to start might be those captains of capitalism themselves, the financiers. A lawsuit filed against Barclays in New York over its habit of secretly giving preferred clients a few milliseconds' advantage over their competitors reveals just how little input homo sapiens have in the way money is made off of money. Ditto the intricacies of Bitcoin mining. Why do we need the humans at all? Has Wall Street been able to use its vast wealth and clout to shield itself from the same forces it unleashes on the rest of us without mercy? Given its propensity for disaster and the fact that it's apparently thoroughly automated already, why not dose them with their own medicine? And can they even stop it if they tried?

Herein lies the potential silver lining. At the risk of spinning hedge fund managers as the canaries in the coal mine, surely there is some hope when doctors, lawyers and analysts see their incomes reduced, their stature threatened and their futures jeopardized. Here we come to an event horizon where globalized capitalism either eats itself alive or restructures itself fundamentally. Neither outcome would be smooth—in fact, worldwide upheaval sounds likelier. But the alternative is for more of us to succumb to the macroeconomic equivalent of carbon monoxide, indefinitely. The future we were promised, of limitless leisure kept afloat by a few breezy hours of work each week, looks more distant than ever. You might not even get a robot maid out of it.

Follow Peter Lawrence Kane on Twitter.