Artificial intelligence, robotics and automation won't need to replace ALL human jobs. It will be enough if they replace just enough to cause socioeconomic earthquakes. It will happen in a few years. And then who knows.
A show written by an AI would debut in Prague this month, marking the 100th anniversary of the invention of the robot, born right there. Covid has postponed it to next month, and it will only be online. A highly symbolic event for automation, don't you think? The future will be very different from what we expected.
One hundred years of robots
The comedy of Josef Capek, Rossum's Universal Robots: RUR, was an instant hit in 1921. It was his brother, Karel, who came up with the name. The imaginary "robots" (the robot meaning: a Czech word meaning servants or slaves) were developed to save humans from hard work on assembly lines and death in warfare. Eventually, however, they rebelled and wiped out the human race. Other than Skynet.
The show was performed on Broadway in 1922, with the young Spencer Tracy, and then in England. In 1938, it was the first science fiction drama ever to air on TV, live on the BBC.
In the real world, 100 years later, robots can't even dance very well. The vision of the Capek brothers did not come true except in the movies.
The humanoid error
In more recent films, human-like robots are tragic figures, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, or Roy Batty, the anti-hero of Blade Runner, with his great monologue.
Great emotions, but robots and self-driving vehicles don't talk like that. Many robots, in truth, do not speak at all. And of course they won't wipe out the human race - automation will only do its job.
The ride of automation
It replaced most of the workers on the assembly lines. In their place they put machines that don't make Monday morning mistakes, they do not join trade unions, do not ask for increases.
The factories are mostly still there, churning out goods, but the well-paid jobs have largely disappeared and the old industrial cities are becoming piles of rusty barracks.
It is mostly online and focuses on retail. Department stores were mostly in decline even before Covid, and smaller stores are now being swallowed up by Amazon and its many smaller competitors.
At least this time some new jobs are also created: minimum wage, zero-hour jobs, mostly in warehouses, distribution centers and delivery services. The proportion of the population classified as "poor workers" is growing in all developed countries. And political radicalization is also growing: predictable. Until now, however, mostly on the right.
It's almost there. The new objectives of this automation this time will be managerial and professional jobs. Not all, of course, but entire levels of middle management in business and less skilled positions in the fields of medicine, law, accounting and related businesses.
It's a back to the future if you think about it. The automation model 3.0 is familiar to anyone who has studied the history of the industrial revolution in England.
The goods (shoes, tools, clothing, etc.) were produced by independent and qualified artisans and with reasonable incomes until 1750. They were then produced in factories by low-skilled wage slaves with almost no bargaining power up to 1850.
Three generations later, the unions and the welfare state have begun to narrow the gap between the rich and the rest again, and the second half of the twentieth century it was the best time for the "common people" of many parts of the world.
Now human abilities are being usurped again by machines and self-action, and the distances are widening again.
What will happen next?
We are not condemned to simply recapitulate the past.
Knowing what worked and what didn't last time could help us avoid the worst results this time around. That's why this time we hear a lot about "basic income"and of welfare state expansions to facilitate the transition.
The current situation is still embryonic, while a "real" artificial intelligence is taking its first steps. This type of automation has not yet forced the changes, even destructive ones, it is meant to make.
The kind of broad-spectrum intelligence humans have (or even dolphins, chimpanzees and crows) is not yet available in any machine, nor is "singularity" going to wipe us all out in irrelevance next week.
True AI will come in some form in the not too distant future though: and here things get much more nebulous. Predicting automation 4.0 and its social and political impact is much more difficult.