I’m fascinated by technology, I love it. I was born when the world was still mostly analogue and the few computers that did exist would take up an entire room. Televisions still had electronic valves and the IC (integrated circuit) had not long been in mass production. I think my interest in science started when I was seven years old, I had a big magnet and one day while watching TV alone in the room I had the bright idea of putting the magnet on the TV screen. Imagine this seven year old being blown away as he moved the magnet around on the screen and the picture distorted and followed the magnet, the effect was psychedelic. Then imagine as the fascination turned to horror when I took the magnet off the screen and the picture didn’t go back to normal. I turned the TV off and ran up to my room and started reading a book as if nothing had happened. A while later I heard my mother say, ‘whats happened to the TV!!!’ Then she came up to my room and asked if I had seen anything wrong with it. Like any good seven year old, I denied all knowledge. When the TV engineer came out to fix it, it didn’t take long, he took a look at me and said ‘someone has a magnet’, I was busted. But that experience kickstarted my interest, how could a magnet have such a powerful yet invisible force. In high school I loved physics and I got my first computer in 1982, a Sinclair ZX81 and learnt how to program it. Also, when I first got into photography when I was ten, I was as much interested in the science as the art, how light works and how it can interact to create images.
So this article is based on how I see technology impacting the world of work and its effect on society as well as also looking forward to see what can be in the next five, ten and beyond years. I have been speaking to people who work in automation and robotics, designers and programmers. It is a fascinating world but one that will also raise many challenges for people in the world of work.
A lot of my conversations have been with people who design and build production lines for the automotive industry, one of the most highly automated industries in the world. While robots have been used for many years now, for instance in welding panels together, and conveyors automatically moving everything along, these systems are relatively ‘dumb’ compared to what is being developed and implemented today.
Today, the sensor technology that is used for quality control can work to very tight tolerances and very quickly. Vision systems can optically analyse a part to see if it has been made correctly, measuring systems with touch sensors can operate very accurately and rapidly. Pressure and leak testing systems are now fully automatic. What ties all these different parts together is the PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) as it tells the different robots and sensors what to do and collects, controls and coordinates the data that is sent back. In fact, a major area of development today is in traceability, with all the data being collected, if something does go wrong in production, the data exists to pinpoint the precise reason why, whether it be a design fault, machine fault or human error. This leads us to another point, with all the technology available, the need for human workers in mass production is being reduced and from conversations it is clear that number of human workers in automotive production is going to be cut even further over the next five years.
What is really fascinating is the idea that in future we won’t even need programmers to program the robots and sensors beyond entering the basic parameters of what is needed. With the rapid development of Machine Learning (ML) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) as most call it, the time is coming when machines will be able to program other machines. Earlier this year, Google pitched its AlphaGo computer against the best Go players in the world and won. It is a very complex game that requires a certain level of intuition, Chess is simple in comparison. As ML is refined and developed there will be the possibility to use it to teach other machines what to do. For example, nowadays a production line is built and has different stations for the different robots and quality control systems. A programmer must write the code to tell each station exactly what to do and how, with robots working in close proximity care also has to be taken that there are no collisions between the different stations. The programmer also has to write the code which studies the data sent back from the robots and sensors to check no errors have been made. With ML, there is no reason why, in the not so distant future, it will not be possible to build a production line, and have a Machine Teaching system (MT) do this work. All that will be needed is to tell it the role of each station, the order of component assembly and then let the MT get on with it. Programming is logic, mathematics, perfect work for a system that functions on mathematics and logic, able to analyse vast numbers of possibilities and outcomes in a short time to find the best solution. Each robot and sensor station works on repeated cycles, there is no reason why in the future it won’t be possible, using Machine Teaching to take the role of a human programmer.
Increasing automation is used for two different reasons; quality and cost control. Machines don’t need lunch breaks or holidays, they don’t break down very often and they don’t get tired and make mistakes. The rapid refinement of automation machines means they can take on increasingly delicate jobs, which before demanded the dexterity of human hands. Of course there are still some jobs robots can’t do and I don’t think will be able to do for a very long time, stitching the leather to a Rolls Royce steering wheel is definitely one job that needs a human. But in general, the machines will take over.
But there are many other areas of work where automation using Machine Learning and Machine Teaching will be able to take over, accounting comes to mind as does insurance and certain areas of commercial law. I can even see how purchasing will become automated. In fact, this is already happening in the world of finance with electronic trading systems that buy and sell stocks automatically, they can react to price changes much faster than a human can, the system does have its weaknesses but in general works well. Even financial advice is now being automated using very complex algorithms to study stocks, bonds, commodities and company performance etc. So in the future buyers and sellers of a product will be able to use a system that can automatically negotiate with other buyers and sellers in order to get the best price, in the same way that is happening in the financial world today. Any job that is based on numbers, that doesn’t require genuine creativity will eventually be automated when it becomes cheaper to use a machine than a human. Machine Learning and Machine Teaching will make this happen, the technology is being developed more rapidly than many realise.
Where does this leave us? Eventually, most office jobs will go the way of factory jobs, where only a small number of people will be needed to keep a general eye on things. So what will happen? The effect on society will be dramatic, new jobs that people can do are not being created anywhere near as quickly as the jobs which are being automated, I doubt mass new jobs will ever be created. People need money to live and businesses need customers to consume. There is no point in automating yourself out of business because few people have a job and the money to buy your product or service. Only so many people can work in medicine, design engineering, building construction or infrastructure etc. Automation in conjunction with Machine Learning and Machine Teaching is a road from which there is no turning back, now started it won’t be stopped. So what is a possible solution to the social upheaval that is coming? The idea of a universal basic income is being considered in some countries but for it to work it will need to be more than a basic income if people are to have enough money to spend and not just live hand to mouth. So looking further into the future and being aware of how governments would like to move us toward a cashless society, I want to get a bit creative in a utopian/dystopian kind of way. Could it be that every year, every person is given a sum of money, the governments would use their central banks to ‘print’ the money even though it only exists in electronic form in your bank account. Then at the end of the year that money is deleted, wiped off the balance sheet of the central bank and any which is left over in your bank account before being recreated as the clock ticks over to the new year to start all over again. The downside of this is that the government would know everything you use the money for and could delete the money in your account if it decided it didn’t like you. Cold hard cash would no longer exist so you would be well and truly stuck. In this future, business would decide when you need to buy something, for instance, you have had your home entertainment system for two years, it is now time to upgrade. A new one will be delivered and installed after the money has been automatically deducted from your account. You are being paid to consume and consume you must. Everything must be done to keep business running, that is the point of government which is now just a subsidiary of a corporation. But what about schools and hospitals etc. Education would change, with machines doing most of the work most people wouldn’t need much of an education, the most important thing they would need to be taught is the importance of consumption and would consist of mainly watching advertainment videos as sponsored by Google, the biggest advertising company in the world. At that time all products and services will have to be approved for sale by Google, now the worlds most powerful company and de-facto government of Europe and the Americas. It will be extremely hard to make and sell something if you are not approved for listing on the only approved search engine in the western hemisphere, it happened a few years after the final death of Net Neutrality. In fact, at that time hand made items made on the ‘black market’ will be in demand but very dangerous to own. Once the Internet of Things, ‘IoT’ finally took off and there were so many ‘smart devices’ in people’s homes with cameras and microphones it became very easy to detect if there was a ‘black market’ object in the house, easily checked by image recognition software in seconds against the database of approved items from approved businesses. If you are caught, ‘your’ bank account could be emptied.
As for health, doctors and surgeons will still exist but many diagnosis will be made by machine bristling with sensor and scanning technology, although I’m not sure about the idea of a machine proctologist! None of the administration staff and middle management that absorb so much of a hospital’s budget will be needed, that work has been automated. But healthcare will be administered on a cost/benefit basis, can the patient be made well enough to keep consuming will always be the question.
Forgive me for going a bit sci-fi but everything I have written here about the technology is possible and under development. The technology of automation is accelerating and it is going to change the face of work across all levels of society. The impact can not be escaped. While I went off into rather an imaginative view of the future of business and government it is true that the current system of managing the coming change is seriously inadequate and will need drastic solutions if the advancements in technology today are not to be responsible for the upheaval of society tomorrow.