Robots are not coming for your job

I had been watching this anime series on Netflix called Aggretsuko, which tells of Retsuko, a seemingly timid office worker (anthromorphised by a character of a red panda) who goes to karaoke after work to belt out metal songs out to her heart’s content whenever she’s stressed. She briefly dated a tech mogul (anthromorphised by a, uhm, unicorn) who is set out to launch his ambitious AI called ENI-O, which “listens to people’s voices across all media, and reads society’s zeitgeist with natural language processing, on a huge scale”. In one conversation with Retsuko after she asks him why he is getting a driver’s license when he has a self-driving car, Tadano tells her of his goal with ENI-O.

“I want to set everyone free from manual labour,” Tadano says.

“I figured I ought to start by freeing my employee of meaningless work. If I got my license, I wouldn’t need my fake driver, would I?”

“So you’d put him out of a job?” asks a baffled Retsuko.

“No, I’d pay him, which would give him the time to do whatever he wants. Technology shouldn’t be used to replace people. Their skills should be redirected elsewhere. If we achieve that, we’ll improve as a civilisation.”

“But that means that everyone will be jobless. Do you want to pay everyone? That’s impossible, right?”

Tadano answers, “That’s our society’s bottleneck.”

I know an anime — especially one that involves a talking red panda and a unicorn — is an unlikely setting to be enlightened about AI, but it reminds me of this video from SXSW where Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were asked on the economic challenge of the labour force being replaced by automation:

We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work. We should not feel nervous about the toll booth collector not having to collect tolls anymore. We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.

Also, it’s about time we should stop framing the fear of automation from “robots will take over your jobs” to “actually, your bosses decide to fire you because it cuts costs“:

As the New York Times’ Kevin Roose reported from Davos, the world’s business leaders are rather eager to implement automation — they see those robots as a chief means of staying ahead of the competition, of improving profit margins, of cutting costs. Thus, they have decided to buy and build more robots that, yes, will put people out of work. It could be said, without much exaggeration, that, far from spontaneously swarming to the factory floor, the robot armies that “are coming for your jobs” are in fact largely organised by the kind of elites who go to Davos.

Letting an ambiguous conception of ‘robots’ instead shoulder the blame lets the managerial class evade scrutiny for how it deploys automation, shuts down meaningful discussion about the actual contours of the phenomenon, and prevents us from challenging the march of this manifest robodestiny when it should be challenged.


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