President Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pa., Oct. 13, 2016. For the first time ever in humans, a technology allowed Copeland to experience the sensation of touch through a robotic arm that he controls with his brain…photo credit: Pete Souza

Learning From The Luddites

History often repeats itself. These failed revolutionists from the 1800’s have a thing or two to teach us.

In the modern lexicon, “Luddite” simply refers to someone who eschews new technology. However, the title Luddite has an interesting history. The name was birthed by an urban legend of sorts. The story goes as follows;

Ned Ludd, also known as Captain, General or even King Ludd, first turned up as part of a Nottingham protest in November 1811, and was soon on the move from one industrial center to the next. This elusive leader clearly inspired the protesters. And his apparent command of unseen armies, drilling by night, also spooked the forces of law and order. Government agents made finding him a consuming goal. In one case, a militiaman reported spotting the dreaded general with “a pike in his hand, like a serjeant’s halbert,” and a face that was a ghostly unnatural white.
-Richard Conniff, Smithsonian Magazine
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This phantom leader, Ned Ludd, was at the head of a group that went about smashing new weaving and textile machines, which were replacing their jobs. Textile workers in 19th century Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, supposedly led by Ludd, were at the center of the Luddite uprising. While it turns out Ludd never really existed, the issues that plagued these workers were very real.

Machines where taking over, causing massive unemployment. Not only were they losing jobs, but employers we using the new machines to skirt fair labor practices. Suffice it to say, the dawn of the industrial revolution was met with opposition. However, to say that the Luddites were against technology is to minimize the far-reaching effects of industrialization on workers. They were fighting to maintain jobs, livelihoods, fair working conditions, and a culture that valued craftsmen and their goods.

Perhaps they fought so hard because they saw the long struggle ahead to protect workers from the new industrialized economy. In any case, the Luddite revolution was put down by armed troops and a law that made it illegal to engage in “machine breaking.” Capitalism, political power and a poorly organized protest all contributed to the end of this short-lived revolution.

People Need Work

Fast-forward to now. The year is twenty seventeen, and the machines are definitely coming for our jobs. Manual labor will probably be obsolete in developed nations within the next 50 years. It turns out that the American people would rather pay less for things, than pay more while employing more people. Simple economics drives employers and entrepreneurs to automate as much of their business as possible in order to keep costs down.

In the face of a new revolution driven by AI and automation, we must not forget that people need something to do. Unlike the Luddites of old, we would do well to develop a framework for that discussion now, instead of in the heat of the moment. What should we do about the millions of people who are well on their way to obsolescence? Culturally, we are ill-equipped to deal with the sudden disappearance of employment.

A sobering example of our inability to deal with the massive disruption of jobs can be found in the United States energy industry. Thanks to disruptive battery and solar technology, coal has taken a beating. According to a recent article in NPR;

U.S. coal production in 2016 is projected to be at its lowest level since 1978, and over the past few years, the country has lost about 30,000 coal jobs. That means hard times for places like Wyoming’s mineral-rich Powder River Basin. Three of the region’s four main coal producers were in bankruptcy in 2016. Two of them laid off hundreds of miners at once.
Leigh Paterson, Reid Frazier, NPR

The effect of massive disruption in the energy sector had been devastating on coal mining towns. The frightening thing is, technology is just getting started. Companies are turning their sights on everything from healthcare to good old-fashioned bureaucracy. They are getting paid handsomely for reducing overhead at any cost. Sometimes it’s just a cleaner, cheaper way of making energy. In other places, it means replacing human beings with robots.

In the wake of this disruption, we see the human beings whose current occupations have been replaced by AI, robots and code. Some adapt, but many languish, unable to cope. Hardest hit are the most disadvantaged among us. Anger brews, crime spikes and a general lack of morale and confidence begins to creep through the population. Spending decreases, businesses shutter their doors, and you know the rest.

Disruption is coming. Some individuals are clearly in deep denial of this fact. However, any economist with half a brain will tell you where all these trends are heading. Come to think of it, there are a few AI platforms that could also get you that information. So the question remains, what do you do with hundreds of millions of unemployed people?

What Do You Do With Hundreds of Millions of Unemployed People?

Let’s put things into perspective. At the height of the great depression there was a recorded unemployment rate of 23%. In contrast to that number, a report published by Oxford University posits that about 47% of the US labor market is at risk of computerization in the next two decades.

Imagine what would happen to the economy if 47% of people were unemployed. The great depression ended in part because people eventually got back to work, thanks to various mechanisms — including subsidies — that got things moving again. This time, there will be no jobs to go back to. Truly worrying is not the amount of jobs lost, but the consequent consolidation of wealth and lack of a labor market.The same study went on to explain;

“If labor productivity increases do not translate into wage increases, then the large economic gains brought about by AI could accrue to a select few, instead of broadly shared prosperity for workers and consumers, this might push towards reduced competition and increased wealth inequality.”
-The Future of Employment

So how can we prepare our culture to address these impacts? We need our leaders to start addressing these issues. Technology is not going to suddenly stop disrupting industry. Capitalists are not suddenly going to take issue with fatter profit margins. No amount of politics is going to stem this economic tide.

We must embrace the future. We must plan carefully. We cannot afford to suffer the same fate as the Luddites, and end up a few strange paragraphs in someone’s history book.

We should be talking to our leaders. We should be shaping our future with the leverage we have now, before the very technology we create, renders us obsolete.

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