Respect for people being lost amid the rise of the robots

Workers are being replaced by machines – and we need to start talking about it

When cashiers in the local supermarket are replaced by automation, that’s the future coming straight at you. 

When cashiers in the local supermarket are replaced by automation, that’s the future coming straight at you. 

 

Sometimes when I see young men walking around with their hands in their pockets, in areas of low employment, and obviously unemployed themselves, it strikes me that a couple of generations – or maybe just one – ago these men would have had a trade, or a job, and the pride that goes with it. 

I thought of them when I read a report in this newspaper by Proinsias O’Mahony (“Stock pickers face scrapheap as investors turn to algorithms”, April 18th). He reported that the people who pick stocks for huge trades by investment firms are being replaced by computer programs driven by artificial intelligence.

“The old way of people sitting in a room picking stocks, thinking they are smarter than the next guy – that does not work any more,” one industry figure said.

What is the link between the unemployed young men and their employed and highly paid counterparts in the financial world? I think it is that the distance between them is growing shorter, and not in a good way. If people who are really, really good at picking stocks are getting elbowed out of the way, then who is safe?

Skilled driver

Shortly after reading O’Mahony’s report, I heard somebody on the radio remark that the big construction machines of the very near future will be operated by someone sitting at a desk and not by a highly skilled driver. Indeed, that future is already here in some areas such as mining.

So, from driving machinery to investing hundreds of millions, humans are becoming redundant. This has been the case in one sector or another since the Industrial Revolution, but the process has sped up in ways I think we are not really looking at hard enough.

When you shop in a supermarket, for example, and find that most of the cashiers have been replaced by machines, you are seeing the future coming at full speed to a place near you.

I wonder if this is all part of moving towards a solution to what could become an overwhelming problem

Does this mean a rapid growth in the number of young men and women walking around without a job and with no prospect of one?

When I see reports from various countries of a growing interest in giving every citizen a basic income from the state, I wonder if this is all part of moving towards a solution to what could become an overwhelming problem: the redundancy of people and the concentration of massive wealth in the hands of those who get to control the system.

A basic income may be a good idea, but what of human dignity? What are we to do with our lives? Walk around with our hands in our pockets? If you’re a parent, what career path should you try to set your children on? How can you know what career will viably exist as a decent job opportunity in the relatively near future?

Danger signs

Human are not great at planning for the inevitable. Look at global warming, look at the ignored danger signs leading up to our great crash in 2008. That’s why I fear our response may begin with going over a cliff.

Do we hear our politicians talking about this technologically driven tsunami that’s heading for us?

Will people have mortgages, other debt, and money-dependent commitments when the disappearance of work picks up speed? I suspect the answer is yes.

I might be painting all of this in garish colours, but it’s no news to most of us that whole swathes of employment are under threat. Do we hear our politicians talking about this technologically driven tsunami that’s heading for us? No, we do not. 

But we need to start talking about it – and the key principle needs to be respect for human dignity at the centre of our response, whatever it may be. I don’t know the answer, but I know we need to start the talking now.

Next time you see one of those young men, or women, idling around, remember: there’s a chance he or she was born in an area which used to thrive but which got run over by progress not all that long ago.

Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. Twitter: @PádraigOMorain 

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