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Come With Me, and You’ll Be, in a World of Total Automation!
You know what my favourite part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is? It’s not the Everlasting Gobstopper or the ironic punishments doled out upon the rotten children. It’s the reason why the Bucket family is in poverty. Charlie’s father loses his job putting the caps on toothpaste tubes to a robot that can do his job better and more efficiently. The punchline later is that he gets a new job fixing the robot that replaced him (presumably having retrained in mechanical engineering in the interim). It’s an idealistic detail that really emphasises the book’s morals, where the good and dignified poor are rewarded and the greedy, spoiled, and stupid are punished via a face-to-face confrontation with the means of production. But I digress.
From the outset, a robot taking your job isn’t as dystopian as it sounds. By automating certain jobs or aspects of them, you remove a lot of boring, repetitive tasks from your work day. At this point in time, robots and artificial intelligences as we understand them are not fully self-aware clockwork citizens (yet), they’re just fancy labour-saving devices. Robots don’t want our jobs, mostly because we haven’t taught them to want.
Manufacturing and cashier jobs are mostly done by machines, and tech companies are aiming to automate jobs that we previously thought would only ever be done by humans, like language processing programs that can proofread legal documents in seconds, or self-driving cars and trucks. Great news for a law clerk who wants to get more paperwork done, less so for the thousands of taxi and truck drivers whose whole livelihoods depend on being at the wheel. And therein lies in the real problem.
When businesses choose to automate their production processes, it increases the share of profits going to capital and decreases the share going to labour. And when it’s more beneficial for a company to replace its squishy sick leave demanding wage monkeys with never-tiring robots, profit is favoured over people, and people inevitably suffer. For a country that supposedly values the dignity of the working person, US robotics stock is looking very healthy, having increased 30% in the past five years and currently worth $732 billion dollars, which is more than the entire economy of Switzerland. About 40% of America’s workforce is set to be automated in the next 15 years, with the UK’s and Japan’s workforces only being slightly less impacted at 30% and 21% respectively. Automation may not permeate the job market evenly either, as the well-off could automate the boring parts of their work to get in another nine holes at the links, while the poor will struggle to find even the most basic jobs. God help them if they ever make a wet-vac Roomba.
However, automation need not exist only to benefit business. French Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon has suggested placing a tax on the wealth gained from automation, essentially a “robot tax,” which would then go back to the people in the form of improved infrastructure or a Universal Basic Income. One idea floated by the radical left that takes this even further is “fully automated luxury communism” which advocates for a post-work society where all labour is done by machines and a universal income supplied populace are freed up for creative and educational pursuits.
But if we really want to continue our comfortably antagonistic relationship with capitalism, we can aim to only automate to the point where it’s a complement to human labour rather than a replacement. I hope that if Charlie automated the factory after taking over from Wonka, he gave the Oompa Loompas a decent severance package.