Alright, I’m gonna preface this with the note that I hadn’t planned on writing this post today, but employment and job-related issues are on my mind since my part time job is, well, no longer any-time. Which means financially, I’m about to hit … well, I wouldn’t call it a speed bump. How about a guardrail? Or just the ditch?
Basically, I really appreciate those book sales, Kindle Unlimited reads, and Patreon Supporters right now. In the meantime, I’m digging around for similar part-time work or gigs and selling off a few unneeded items.
That’s all I’ll say on the matter, but it has put the context of this post in mind. Which has been one I’ve been meaning to write for a while now. Because, well, what was Science Fiction a decade ago is right now becoming Science Fact (or already is), and in some cases I worry too many aren’t noticing.
All right, I’ll back up. What really sparked the genesis of this post was a post I read about six-seven months ago on someone else’s site that was, though I don’t remember the exact title, basically “Automation is a Paper Tiger.” This article, from a fellow Sci-Fi author, mind you, was basically a giant opinion piece against automation (and in this context, we mean the broad-scale rollout of AIs and robots to replace most human workers).
If you’re thinking ahead and wondering “Hey, what happens to all those workers?” you’re on the right track. But let me get back to that.
This was, the article writer declared, impossible. Not only was it decades, maybe centuries away, it was a pipe dream. Companies will always need human employees, and robots couldn’t possibly do a job that a human did. They offered examples of jobs they (and commentators) believed were impossible for a machine to take over, like trucking (18-wheeler shipping). They were adamant that it was all just fearmonging, that no one had any cause to be worried about their job disappearing, it was all hearsay, etc etc.
I believe they were wrong. Actually, no, they are wrong. Why? Well, for starters, some of the very jobs they offered as examples of jobs that couldn’t be replaced by robots? Well …
Yeah, they’re already being replaced.
All right, pop quiz. An easy one. Which of the following is happening in 2020 (next year):
A) A Japanese company will unveil a construction worker robot that does sheetrock and drywall
B) A major US trucking company will place an order for several thousand driverless trucks.
C) A US automotive company will decline to move production to Mexico, and will instead replace 5000 employees with robots.
D) A driverless bus service will open in Salt Lake City, Utah.
E) UPS will go ahead with a fully driverless trucking service.
Got a pick? Made your choice? The answer is …
None of them. In 2020.
All of these things already happened. The sheetrock robot (video below) was in 2018. The SLC driverless bus shuttles? Already running for several months now. The automotive company replacing 5000 workers? Happened in 2016.
The UPS test? The public didn’t even realize it had happened. For several months, driverless, automated 18-wheelers shipped UPS packages across the Southwest. And do you know what they found? 30% reduction in costs, delivery time, problems, etc.
It’s real and it’s here.
Okay, so why talk about it? Well, two reasons. The first is that as a Sci-Fi writer, this is the kind of thing I need to think about. That all Sci-Fi writers should think about. Sands, in Colony I made nods to the fact that in its world, automation is heavily monitored and indeed some jobs are worked by humans by law just so people can have jobs. This is addressed further in Jungle as we start to see what kind of power automation can wield.
But yet, this article I read was from a fellow Sci-Fi author arguing that this sort of thing was a pipe dream. Worse, one of the examples that became a primary discussion point in the comments was, of all things, trucking. Which both the author and commentators who were truckers argued was impossible to automate.
‘Who’d watch the rig at a rest stop?’ one commentator argued. ‘You’ve gotta have someone to watch the rig.’
No one. Because there won’t be a rest stop. A driverless truck does not sleep. They have no need of that. They’re a machine. Where a human driver has to pull over and rest, the robot will continue on. It does not tire. It does not sleep. It cuts all those sleep hours right out of the equation. And time, as you know, is money. What company is going to pick a driver that would make the trip in thirty hours over the machine that will do it in twenty-two?
No one will need to watch the machine at a rest stop because the machine does not rest. The closest we’ll come is recharging stations, and guess what? Those can be fully automated as well, and enclosed. Picture a big warehouse in the middle of nowhere with security doors that only open for the big rigs, letting them into a dim interior to charge their batteries away from prying eyes.
This is again tech that’s already here.
As Science-Fiction writers, we need to be aware that the world is changing, and changing fast. Jobs as we know them are quite rapidly going extinct. Some predict that by 2040, over a hundred million jobs in America currently being worked by humans will be replaced by robots. Our fiction needs to account for that, and readily. If we’re setting a story a hundred years from now (like Colony) we need to consider how the world may adapt to this upset. Will it ban automation and require by law that jobs be “manned” as was the approach in Colony? Will they simply make Universal Basic Income a reality? Some other big change?
This is something us Sci-Fi writers must consider, because the tech is already here. There’s nothing quite like reading a book that’s out-of-date, but the way things are rapidly shifting, a book released a year ago set in 2025 may already be behind the times.
But even outside of Science-Fiction, this is something that more people, I think, should be paying attention to. Why? Because of what happened to the Luddites.
If you’re not familiar with the story of the Luddites, here’s the quick and dirty version. The Luddites were a clan, guild, whatever of textile manufacturers for nobility in human history. Textiles and clothing, especially for nobles, took a lot of work and skill with looms and whatnot, and so, by virtue of demand, the Luddites were very wealthy and well off. They had steady, in-demand labor that no one else could provide.
Until, that was, the industrial revolution dropped, and weaving machines suddenly ate the Luddites’ lunch. The Luddites were wiped out, their name being associated with foolish opposition in the face of technology, and used as an insult to this day.
Here’s the thing though … Historically, the Luddites could have avoided it. See, they were offered a change to spend their wealth buying the new mechanical looms. They could have stayed the top dogs had they only chosen to adapt to the new world coming at them. One which they were well forewarned of.
But they didn’t. Even when offered options to be the owners of the new system, the Luddites decried it and refused it in a manner of ways. Some said it could never happen. That a machine could never do their jobs (sounds familiar). Other stuck their heads in the sand, refusing to believe that the machines were a real thing until their business was gone.
Only when it was far too late did the Luddites react, and then mostly with self-destructive behavior, be that staging riots or even burning their own looms as if to say “One day you’ll need me again, and then you’ll be sorry.”
Spoiler alert: That didn’t happen.
Today? I see a lot of people making the same mistakes the Luddites are making already. Insisting that “it can’t happen to my job” even as that job is replaced. Over the past year, in thinking on and watching this change begin (and we’re just in the early days), I’ve talked with a number of people who have no idea it’s happening. Sands, the other day I put that quiz above to someone who was excited about the idea of automation, and they failed, surprised that even one of them would happen by 2020 … and then really being shocked when discovering that all of them already had happened.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the automation change is a good one. Or at least, it has the potential to be. What I fear is that many people will make the same mistakes the Luddites have on a grand scale. And what happened there? The Luddites wiped themselves out, financially speaking. I kind of don’t want to see the majority of my home country become the Luddites. That’d be bad for everyone.
Basically, while automation can be good, and is the future, like it or not, the changes wrought by such a massive shift will be devestating if people don’t think about them and prepare for them.
And yes, I know this isn’t new. Sort of. We had the industrial revolution, for example, which gave us histories of battling the change like John Henry, who fought a steam engine. And it should be noted, died, kind of proving that machines are here to stay. Or the agricultural revolution.
But here’s the thing: A lot of historians and folks that look at how things like the industrial revolution changed society are saying that the automation revolution will be much more disruptive than the industrial revolution or any other … even if everyone is ready for it. Which, for the industrial revolution, society mostly was. Society at large was excited for it and welcoming it.
Where automation is concerned, we are not. Not ready. Not welcoming. There are far too many people completely unaware of it, or worse insisting “that’ll never happen” even as it happens. Robots that build foundations? Already a thing. A display at a show I was at last year demonstrated building a building foundation in 1/3 the time with 1/4 the people labor involved. Robots hanging sheet rock? Already a thing. And sure, they’re slower. Now. But they work without breaks, or lunch, or even sleep.
Or health insurance. Or life insurance. Or unemployment. I’ve heard some people scoff and say “Yeah, well that robot will costs $120,000. No way it’d replace me.
To which I fire back “Don’t you make $50,000-100,00 a year? Plus insurance? And you only work eight to ten hours a day. The robot is not ‘lazy.'”
In other words, even if that robot costs three times as much, it’s still cheaper than a human being almost immediately. The robot will work night and day.
Now, again, I’m not trying to be a doomsayer. The robots will clearly have human supervision, so some human element will remain to keep an eye on things. There will be some form of maintenance that has to be done, sure. There will be human elements around.
But in the construction example, that’s talking about reducing say, sixty workers on a site to maybe ten or twelve, and most of those will be overseeing multiple sites at once thanks to computers.
Again, this is freaking cool. On the one hand. As a Sci-Fi author and enthusiast, this is a dream come true. As a regular person like everyone else watching this future approach like a majestic iceberg, I worry far too much that the passengers and navigators are looking at it and going “No, there’s nothing to worry about here. I only see a little iceberg. That can’t bother us! It’d be impossible for it to do otherwise.”
And you know, 90% of an iceberg is underwater, ready to nail the unwary. Me? I’d like to change the course of the ship we’re on to admire the iceberg before the entire economic society we know becomes Titanic 2.0.
Basically, I guess the whole point of this post is “Be aware.” Be aware that this isn’t just the future anymore, but the present. This is happening now. Companies can already buy, for example, robotic commercial vacuums that can not just vacuum, but even change their own batteries and dump out their contents when the bin gets full. Completely automated. They cost about $30,000.
Now, if you’re the guy in charge of cleaning, say … an airport, and you have a whole fleet of janitors … think about how much money you’d save by just swapping out some of those janitors for a single robot vacuum.
Yeah, this is already a thing. Those jobs are gone. Robots have them now. Sands, at my own part-time job (or at least, the one I had) I could see the writing on the wall. The cost of those robotic vacuums? Going down. Employee costs? Up. The change is inevitable.
Be aware. The change is coming, and all of us need to start looking at ways to not be the Luddites. Sci-Fi authors or not. We need politicians that are ready to deal with this kind of massive shift (not ones that insist things like robotic trucks are fantasy). We need jobs that will allow us to ride out the change. I’m not proposing any answers here to smoothing this transition (though there are some proposed out there), I’m just saying we need to be thinking about them, researching them, and even being ready to vote on them.
Because we cannot stop this from coming. Unless, you know, we all band together and make it illegal globally or something. Which is pretty unlikely, if I’m honest.
So we’d best think of something. Because one of the biggest icebergs humanity has ever experienced is right in front of us.
We need to figure out what to do about it.
Heading picture taken from AIST’s press release on the HRP-5P.