Automation: Redefining Power and Rethinking the Worker

by Demetrios.C.Orton.Hatzis on March 20, 2017 - 12:04am

            In the article 'As well or better than humans': Automation set for big promotions in white-collar job market, written by Angela Hennessy on Feb 28, 2017 and taken from CBC News, are details the issues that Canadian workers will face as intelligent programs and automated robots take over the industry. The article Ottawa warned about job losses that could stem from automation, written by The Canadian Press on Mar 18, 2017 and hosted on CBC News, explains the automation issues as well as the slow to act attitude that has enveloped the senior officials in Ottawa about the issue.

            In the last few decades the world has seen the rise of a new class of worker, one that needn’t bother itself with rest or work breaks, doesn’t worry about raises or promotions, and works in any environment. The robotic worker and its achievements are well known, however the digital worker, or Intelligent programs by another name, are less talked of, however they have the capability to take over jobs that a much more complex than assembly line work. In essence the process is similar, a job is split up into all of its components where an IP, intelligent program, can quickly and efficiently complete them separately and then assemble them, like how cars are put together on assembly lines. With this technological breakthrough, jobs that previously needed the consciousness of a human to problem-solve can now be delegated to programs and the engineers that craft them. Jobs like paralegals, taxi drivers, receptionists, security guards, and many others have the chance to but deconstructed, redesigned and rebuilt with an IP at the controls. Sunil Johal, the policy director at the Mowat Centre think-tank of the University of Toronto, believes that “between 1.5 million and 7.5 million [Canadian workers], many of them highly skilled workers[,] could face such a fate over the next decade because of rapid technological advances.” Hennessy adds the despite a clear consensus around experts on the exact effects of automation, they do agree that big change is coming sooner than people realize.  There is already evidence of IPs that took over specialised positions, for example, “[i]n 2000, the investment bank[, Goldman Sachs,] had 600 U.S. cash equities traders — highly-skilled, high-income workers — on its floor. Today, it has two — backed by 200 software engineers”, Hennessy noted. In addition, IPs have “take[n] over nearly every aspect of mortgage processing” as the article mentions was once a very safe job choice with plenty of upwards mobility. The big issue in both these situations is that, as Johal puts it, “it's often more subtle than what happened on industrial assembly lines. [P]eople can be shuffled around, moved into other positions or slowly phased out.” This vague and quiet replacement aids in disarming those who could prevent major job loss, or help create opportunities for those who will lose their jobs.

            The importance of readiness, or rather immediate readiness, seems to have gone over the heads of the senior officials at Employment and Social Development Canada when they were given a collection of documents warning about the job losses that Canada would face due to automation in the coming years. However as The Canadian Press notes, “[e]xperts say what's missing from the documents is any hint of concern that the rise of the machines is an immediate concern that the government must quickly address.” Even more worrying information comes from an anonymous industry source, who said “senior government officials acknowledge automation is something they have to deal with, but likely not for decades” and that “senior officials believe new jobs will be created to keep people working.”

            Anecdotally, a good saying to live by is: One should hope for the best but prepare for the worst. In this case, by not taking action now and by expecting the problem to be distant and likely to sort itself out, the senior officials have procrastinated and then rationalised a reason to outright avoid solving the problem.

            That being said, mitigating the problem and outright solving the problem are completely different, and while mitigation is surely helpful, and rest assured the problem solving proposals like taxation and job retraining are just patch-style work compared to the system over hall that would be required to solve the problem. Put simply, I believe the solution lies in a change in power dynamic, namely a shift from Old Power to New Power. New Power is a term describing the use of many to achieve a desired task where as Old Power is the use of few. For example a co-op apartment complex is New Power where as a complex with a landlord and multiple tenants is Old Power. First however, let’s walk through this issue systematically. In a company employing robots, revenue is no longer spread through employees into the economy, its hoarded or reinvested into the company. Those who lose their jobs, are often highly specialized and any kind of career shift would be difficult and nigh impossible to maintain the same kind of income after shifting. Moreover these simultaneous processes will drastically increase income inequality and widen the disparity between the low and high classes. Some, like Bill Gates, have suggested taxing the automated workers for the jobs that they replace, while others, like Elon Musk, believe that the only way to thrive in an automated world is with universal basic income. Gates’ proposal could be seen as an Old Power patch to the problem, where as Musk’s proposal is the New Power solution. When you really think about it, a country is the largest co-op in existence. By guaranteeing universal income, the pressure is removed from those who struggle to make ends meet, those who are most likely to be replaced by a robot, and those who wouldn’t have the foundation to make a career change upon being replaced. The idea that not everyone needs to work to make the world go round is a new concept that most people have yet to wrap their minds around, but in a world where intelligent programs, tireless robots and ever approaching AI coexist with us, that idea will become a reality. The question is, will we as a society shift to care for those who aren’t lucky enough to be born into wealth? I believe such steps should be taken now, or they may never be taken.

            While this seems like a drastic change, there is already an experiment in Finland testing the viability of Universal Basic Income, and in Ontario a pilot project to follow Finland in such an experiment is already gaining influence. At this point, public support and reduction of social stigma are require to get this project off the ground. A great way to get is to simply further the conversation and spread the word about Universal Basic Income.


Cited works:

'As well or better than humans': Automation set for big promotions in white-collar job market. CBC News

Ottawa warned about job losses that could stem from automation. CBC News


Additional Reading:

Elon Musk and Universal Basic Income


Bill Gates and Tutomation Taxation


Understanding New Power

Finland: Testing the universal basic income


Pilot project for universal basic income in Ontario



About the author

I am a CEGEP (kinda like Quebec's College) student, 4th semester, was born and raised in and around Montreal, am very opinionated and raring to start any kind of ideological back and forth, could probably argue my way out of a metal box, and have at least a few years experience skeptically eyeing