The Stairway to Heaven, part 3: The Machine Revolution

Conservatives have been wallowing in schadenfreude this week after it came to light that McDonalds is looking to replace some of its employees with digital order-taking machines in some of its Seattle locations, owing to the recent minimum wage hike. “What did you expect?” they crow, as if it’s fait accompli that rising wages will lead to more jobs replaced by machines. Well, it is, but the underlying assumption is we’d better keep wages low, or else the robots will come for our jobs.

This is idiotic.

Inflation means rising prices. Rising prices mean rising wages. Rising wages mean workers cost more. Meanwhile, computers are getting cheaper and cheaper, thanks to Moore’s Law and our nerds being shit hot. As the price of human workers goes up, as it inevitably must, and the price of robot workers goes down, as it inevitably will, more and more jobs will be replaced by machines. This is, indeed, fait accompli — it’s basic economics.

Robots are more reliable than people. They don’t get sick. They don’t argue. They don’t misbehave. They don’t have off days. They don’t spit in the food. They don’t need wages, holidays, or medical benefits. They can work 24/7. A well-designed user interface will outperform a register jockey every single day of the week. Mark my words: it isn’t a minimum-wage hike that’s causing restaurants to look to replacing some of their workers with machines.

The entire point of robots is to free people from having to do manual labor or simple, repetitive tasks. That’s why we invented them in the first place. Of course they’re coming for our jobs. That isn’t in dispute.

The real question is, how are we going to handle it?

See, the American way of thinking is, you go out and get a job to support yourself. If you’re unemployed, obviously it’s because you’re not looking hard enough (or you’re being too picky). Can’t find a job that’ll support you? Better work a minimum-wage job until you find something better. Or go to school and get some education. Or … well, there’s no need re-tread all the fallacious talking points.

Here’s the pulse: those jobs are going away. All that raising the minimum wage did was make them go away faster, but it’s not like the writing hasn’t been on the wall for years now. As computers get better and robots get more sophisticated, more and more tasks that are currently performed by humans are going to be done by machines. Cashiering and order-taking is only the beginning. Factory jobs? Kiss those goodbye. Tech support? I’m really sure that a well-built chat bot can already handle the vast majority of tech support requests, and I’m reasonably sure the human on the other end of the chat wouldn’t even realize they were talking to a robot. In the days to come, more and more jobs are going to be mechanized. There are already nurse robots in Japan. Self-driving cars will spell the doom of the transportation industry. On and on.

The machine revolution is coming, and it’s going to transform our society in massive ways. No amount of wage suppression is going to change this — all it will do is delay things by a few years, if that. The very instant it becomes cheaper to buy a robot than to hire a human for $7.25 an hour, that human is out the door, down the road, gone. And the job that the robot took is now functionally gone forever, and it isn’t going to be replaced by a new job — especially not a job that a high school student can do.

Our workplace is going to be a sea of robots performing all of the unskilled and semi-skilled tasks, managed by human technicians with a very specific skill set. There simply aren’t going to be enough jobs to go around. Under those circumstances, how do we cope? How do we make sure everyone still has food, clothing, and shelter? Are we going to keep blaming people for their own poverty, when they simply can’t find jobs because the jobs they’re qualified for don’t exist?

This will have other ramifications. It sets the stage for a desperate labor market, which will in turn drive wages down. Think about your own job — do you think you’re secure? What about when a new CS graduate enters the workforce, willing to work for half of what you’re making? What about your job security then?

As long as we force people to work for their food, there will always be minimum-wage jobs — a desperate workforce is a cheap workforce, after all. But as there are fewer and fewer jobs to go around, how will we cope? I ask again, are we going to let people starve? Are we going to insist that those jobs are there, even when they very clearly aren’t?

I, for one, am eagerly anticipating the coming of our machine servitors. But if we don’t decide how we’re going to adjust to a dwindling labor market, if we don’t figure out how we’re going to take care of people for whom there are simply no jobs, then there are going to be problems.

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