The coming jobs massacre and a more violent world

May 25, 2015
A humanoid robot named Han developed by Hanson Robotics reacts as the controller commands it via a mobile phone to make a facial expression during the Global Sources spring electronics show in Hong Kong

A humanoid robot named Han developed by Hanson Robotics is shown at the Global Sources spring electronics show in Hong Kong, April 18, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The elephants in the room lumber about, undisturbed by politicians or people of vision.

The hard issues of the economy are well known. Politicians, bureaucracies, CEOs and trade union leaders have dealt the the issues of productivity, unemployment, competition from east and west, the collapse of industries through the decades of the 20th, and now the 21st, centuries. Yet these are harder now. Intelligent systems, robotic manufacturing, driverless vehicles, online services, all carve deep into established trades.

In the post-war decades, every time a new technology came along, the feared bonfire of jobs didn’t happen — or only briefly and not everywhere. It’s different this time. The jobs massacre that super-intelligent machines and systems presage, doesn’t — for now — seem to leave many large areas of human work.

My son settled, in his mid-teens, on the trade of an actor as his life’s work: and in his mid-twenties, became one. I was glad, yet felt obliged to issue the warning that this was a trade renowned for unemployment, and frustrated hopes.

But acting is not yet a candidate for automation. Maybe he was wiser than his co-evals who studied law, engineering and business studies. Maybe, if automation relieves us of much physical and mental toil, the old utopian dream of leisure and cultivation of the mind and body could be realized, and actors will be in short supply and highly rewarded.

Maybe: but what a massacre of jobs to get there! And as that comes closer, the political world has to simultaneously come to terms with a possibility rapidly becoming a fact. That is, the likely end to Western Europe’s long period of peace.

As the Soviet Union was disintegrating a quarter of a century ago, the “evil empire’s” foreign affairs advisor Georgy Arbatov said to the then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott  — “we are doing something terrible to you: we are depriving you of an enemy.”

That’s no longer true. Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor state, is now an enemy, if still a cold one. Its seizing of parts of Ukraine; its threats to the Baltic states; its probing of NATO defenses at sea and in the air; its relentless propaganda against the West — all at the bidding of President Vladimir Putin — leave no doubts.

And if there is legitimate debate about how dangerous Russia is, there is none about the Islamist movements whose virulence and power appears presently unstoppable. In just a week, Islamic State has taken Ramadi in Iraq, and now Palmyra, in Syria. Jihadists rule large parts of Libya, Saudi Arabia is trying to wipe out the Houthi rebels in Yemen and extremists on both the Sunni and Shi’ite sides of a now murderous divide strengthen their positions.

In all of the states of Europe, their recruiters and websites beckon young Muslim men and women to join them in the mission to create a new caliphate to rule all Muslims and put their enemies — mainly other Muslims — to the sword. Thousands of Europeans have joined the cause.

No sense now in shrugging this off as a fantasy. Even if the caliphate could never be realized — the forces that could be massed against it would be vast — yet still the vision sucks in the young, and renders helpless the Muslim communities of Europe and elsewhere who do not share the vision but fear their children might.

The killing of Jews, of Christians and most of all of Muslims opposed to the vision is making of the Middle East a place of war, in Syria and Iraq, Libya and Yemen; of defensive repression, as in Egypt; and of fear everywhere. This is a region, as Steve Coll wrote this week, “descending into what looks to be a long, intimately violent war.”

Europe must become less liberal so that liberal democracy is protected. France has a bill extending surveillance before its Senate; Britain will table one soon. Italy, beset with immigrants from North Africa, cannot cope and fears that jihadists are among those washing up on Italian shores. This last fear is not an idle one: Abdel Majid Touil, suspected of being one of these who planted a bomb in a Tunisian museum which killed 24 (four of them Italian) last March, was arrested in Milan earlier this week: he had been saved from drowning, when his migrant boat sank, by the Italian navy in February.

These worsening events and movements confront Europe’s politicians: in sum, they make up a world in which the promises of ever more comfortable living recede, and are replaced with anxiety. No wonder, on the campaign trail, political leaders stay with platitudes and generalities. But sooner or later, they must draw their citizens into a mature debate on what the world now holds for us.

30 comments

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There isn’t a “massacre” of jobs. Rather information processing and robotics have greatly expanded manufacturing productivity and thereby reduced the size of the manufacturing workforce in the U.S., which is about 10 percent of the total workforce. And the manufacturing workforce has declined everywhere, Germany, China, the UK etc. But the service sector has expanded in turn – that is where the jobs are. Every rich country has a large service sector and a small manufacturing sector. Poorer economies have an excessive number of workers in manufacturing because of low productivity.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

Part of the debate needs to be about how to maintain perspective in a world where the media cherry-pick every day’s events for the worst available news, carefully creating exactly the impression that this writer wishes to create: that we’re all doomed in a world that’s going down the tubes. This unhealthy afnd unrealistic picture is defintely not the least of our problems. The media refuse to be part of the effort to form a rational, balanced understanding of our world–just one of the many ways in which they, as exemplified by this writer, profoundly fail us.

Posted by Rugeirn | Report as abusive

Go to bed, John.

Posted by Mr.Whiskey | Report as abusive

Where there is Islam, there is a lack of innovation and hope. All good things built in the Islamic world are built by European or American or Russian engineering firms. People who are not predominantly Islamic, and still have some innovation. When is the last time a medical or technological breakthrough happened at a Muslim university? This is trackable stuff. All smart people in the middle east leave for elsewhere. It is a dead zone.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“law, engineering and business studies” No, those will be some of the last to go- jobs like fast food, cashiers, customer service will be “robotized” within 20 years.

Kids need to study medicine, robotics, electrical engineering and design.

I like the statement “Europe must become less liberal so that liberal democracy is protected. “

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Given the history of such technological advances from the use of fire, through the Industrial Revolution of steam power to electric and electronic revolutions remaking industries, we have always seen spin-offs that generate new opportunities for employment. Whether this is always the case of course is debatable, but I put my money on the continued relevance of the human worker. Histrionics are entertaining, but generally not enlightening or helpful.

Posted by AZWarrior | Report as abusive

Hear, hear for the user Rugeirn’s comment.

I’ll add that the author makes a rapid and colossal leap from (distant imho) Battlestar Galactica AI to a severely undereducated region of the world (one of regrettably several), and a region of war-torn, sectarian, impoverished violence.

Posted by nln | Report as abusive

I believe that Rugeirn has made the most useful comment also. We are rapidly becoming a spectator-sport society, with the sport being what conflict to get into next? None of the recent ones really affect our security, except to the extent that we are stupid enough to get into them and divert ourselves from the real problems. Global Warming won’t wait for us to get smart by the way.

That is why I am not totally opposed to the next Republican financial disaster. It will give people something real to cry about, just the way that spanking a 3-year old does (which does not necessarily harm them by the way).

Posted by Jim1648 | Report as abusive

Every 4.5 days (four and one-half days) the world population increases by 1 million people.

It seems some of the other commenters here do not appreciate that Rome eventually collapsed, as all great cultures have done.

John Lloyd makes sense.

All across America, one sees the American middle class declining rapidly.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

This article seems poorly written – starts off with AI-driven robotics encroaching on jobs but quickly digresses with stereo-typical Russian bashing, muslim radicals and the like with some desperation to see EU to become liberal for US manipulation.

Expected more from the author given his experience but just looks like another article of US defense PR/lobby consultant.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

regarding the comment by the author “But acting is not yet a candidate for automation.” This comment seems at odds with the fact that we have CGI and animation in movies.

The rest of the article appears to be more of a rant rather than rational arguments backed up with economic data.

Posted by seppl | Report as abusive

Well, I think this is an excellent essay.
Putting aside its central tenet for a moment, IMO, we should be discussing population growth more. I know in “middle class” families, there is not usually an excess of kiddiwinkles, but nevertheless, overall, there is (an excess). Urban spread (to accommodate people) is unsustainable.
If you agree, please consider signing

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/New spapers_Discuss_overpopulation/

Posted by seymourfrogs | Report as abusive

Geez John, I read a lot of your stuff and most its pretty decent. I dont know what you were smoking when you scribed this little gem. But, its about the dumbest thing I’ve read in a while.

You are obviously an academic.

Machines are centuries away from replacing people in all but the most menial and repetitive tasks.

I am an engineer and the work i do requires training, experience, intuition, and inspiration. You can’t program me into a machine.

Quit trying to scare people.

Posted by DaveinKL | Report as abusive

It’s a Brave New World. Huxley seems closer to the impending disaster than Orwell, but the outcome is nearly as scary. Soma for all, with a more rigid impersonal class society greased along by the Soma…after the great war. The only question is will there be human life after the big one. Planet Earth has seen many life forms come and go. How do you rationalize with religion in a suicide belt, where the losers believe death of their own children is a noble goal.

Posted by anotherfakename | Report as abusive

This author needs to make up his mind whether he wants to alk about jobs or warfare.

Posted by calmdownsitdown | Report as abusive

@anotherfakename – Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve just ordered Brave New World, based on your comment.

@DaveinKL – Here is a new book you’d find interesting: Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford (an engineer).

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

John’s selection of rather separate disturbing topics is okay, rather like reading Reuters News for half an hour. Similar to a sense of the situation in a boat out to sea, and the motor is spluttering from fuel contamination, and the weather is changing to a cold offshore wind, and everyone is starting to argue, and there is little food, and night is falling.
People like myself in their 60s grew up with increasing comforts, had high hopes of building a better new world with their peers in the 1960s and 1970s, had big downers from drug addicts, AIDS, Reagan/Thatcher power in the 1980s, …, and now this world, with only maybe 10 years left if lucky.
Find a nice day.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

the idea that service sector jobs make up the loss of higher paying manufacturing jobs is delusional.

Posted by hamiltongeyser | Report as abusive

New jobs will be created in areas no one can predict or foresee.

Posted by Bruno1996 | Report as abusive

Well said, @Neurochuck!

Also @Hamiltongeyser.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

The best part about the destruction of humanity by relentless and cruel robotic overlords, is that there will no longer be, anywhere in existence, histrionic, panicked, foolish blog entries.

Posted by LazamatazGA | Report as abusive

The job loss can be mostly attributed to the fact that as individual manufacturing jobs decrease due to technological gains, U.S. manufacturing as a whole is suffering thanks to improper trade relations with certain nations and a ludicrously loose tariff/tax policy that does not incentivise localization of business to the U.S.
Another contributing factor to this is that as the shift to service and technology positions increases, U.S. education lags behind. There have been substantial trends for reduction in education spending, little to no investment in raising teacher salaries to attract talent/overhaul lackluster education programs, loss of advanced degree positions in U.S. universities to China and India (who once entrenched create islands of further recruitment from those countries), and the quality of degrees has decreased with students having to sink enormous time and debt into obtaining competitiveness as most companies are unwilling to invest in training programs for fresh graduates.
This results in the average level of U.S. citizens being undertrained for their own economy. Either the education and job training process for the U.S. needs to be overhauled to produce a higher average skill level for graduates to engage in service/tech positions or manufacturing/industry has to be localized to provide jobs for those individuals who do not possess the training/skill to participate in high end positions.

Posted by Alloran | Report as abusive

Monks were replaced by the printing press; blacksmiths were replaced by the assembly line. The assembly line is being replaced by robots. Personally, I am in favor of this trend. It will free humanity to finally raise a family, get involved in the community and civics, and achieve self-actualization. What needs to occur is to establish a negative income tax, guaranteed annual income or national dividend. Followed by a massive education campaign and/or public works/conservation projects to update our national infrastructure for increased efficiency and a renewable energy economy.

Posted by JanosUsfor | Report as abusive

The coming jobs massacre…..who are these people writing opinions????

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Actually, there have been scholarly studies, and I will go look them up if need be, that suggest that the upcoming new technologies might, this time, not generate more jobs, as in the past, but actually, significantly reduce total employment. I don’t see much that can change the present course. Banks and multi-national corporations rule the world economy and they are not about to let concerns about people’s well being get in the way of profit. As fewer and fewer people are needed to maintain and perpetuate the comfortable lives of the investor class what will happen to the other 80% of us?

Posted by m97402 | Report as abusive

You left out the paragraph telling kids to stay off your lawn.

http://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/intell igencer/2013/07/17/17-simpsons-old-man.o .jpg/a_560x375.jpg

Posted by Ray34444 | Report as abusive

What will happen is that all jobs will be taken over by computers and people will be all on government welfare programs. Talk about a recipe for chaos and disaster, no wonder the nazis and communists in gubmint want to take away guns from everyone.

Posted by gotham1883 | Report as abusive

The service sector is fueled and supported by money printing. The idea that an economy can run on purely service sector jobs is delusional at best and dangerously delusional at worst.

Posted by gotham1883 | Report as abusive

“But acting is not yet a candidate for automation.”
You don’t need automation when you have advancing 3D graphics.
Actors will be replaced with pixels.

Posted by BettyBoppy | Report as abusive

There is no sense fretting about possible futures. Human civilization is far too complex and interconnected for anyone to successfully predict the future. Each of us can only do our best, and behave as we think right. What happens to nations and the world is outside our control.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive