Rise of the Machines

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

"We’re not trying to schedule our workers more efficiently. We’re trying to replace them altogether."
-- An executive of a fast-food company

Andrew Yang, a 2020 presidential candidate, reports that quote about automation in his book The War on Normal People.

And though I think the executive is doing harm, I understand his reasoning.

Last week, I was paying for my lunch at a fast-food restaurant. The bill was $5.44. Paying with a $10 bill would have given me change of four one-dollar bills and 56 cents. I didn't want one-dollar bills, so I gave $11 to the woman at the register. Easy-peasy: $11 minus $5.44 was a five dollar bill and 56 cents.

She looked at the $11, puzzled. She tried to give the one-dollar bill back to me. "It's $5.44," she said. "Trust me," I replied. I explained that $11 minus $5.44 was $5.56.

So she put the $11 into the cash drawer, keyed in $10, and the computer told her that my change was $4.56. So that's what she tried to give me. I explained it to her again: $11.00 minus $5.44 was $5.56. After one more try, she finally understood and gave me the correct change.

I've had that experience several times at different retail establishments. The people at the cash registers depend on the cash registers to tell them how much change to give. If anything happens that is slightly out of the ordinary, they don't know what to do. They can't do simple arithmetic.

Those people are created in the image of God. Their lives matter. Their happiness matters. But they are not smart enough to make change, even with the assistance of computerized cash registers. A humane society must somehow find a place for them.

It's not just them. Even if employees can make change, it's cheaper to replace them with automated kiosks. The kiosks can handle most transactions, don't need benefits, never get sick, never complain, and never need vacations. The few remaining human workers will handle any unusual situations that the kiosks can't.

The same logic increasingly applies to white-collar occupations. Artificial intelligence programs are getting good enough to handle routine legal tasks, interpret medical tests, and to do other "knowledge worker" jobs. Companies will replace human employees by automation if:

  • It's cheaper, and
  • The quality is at least as good or (often) companies don't care much about it, and
  • There are no legal, institutional, economic, or social constraints that discourage companies from replacing people with automation.

Some of it is going to happen no matter what we do. Yang seems to take it as a fait accompli, offering a "universal basic income" as a remedy. He thinks that it's a mistake to connect work with self-respect and human dignity. I'm uneasy about those ideas. Yes, they're one way to address the problem: but are they the best way? Stay tuned.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."