Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Amidst all the nonsense and hysteria of the most recent US election, Barack Obama gave an interview to Wired magazine where he talked about the impact of driverless vehicles. On the one hand, he suggested that driver error was the single greatest cause of fatalities on US roads, and that driverless vehicles would significantly reduce that. On the other hand, he pointed out that three million Americans earned a living driving everything from trucks to school-buses to taxis.
It was classic Obama. Slightly wonky, calm, measured, thoughtful. A rational discussion about future challenges and opportunities. Just wait and see how lucky we’ll all realise we were to have him as president of the United States when the next guy is sworn in.
But it made me think: are Irish politicians giving any thought to the future? Given the occasional hysteria about technology, especially in the Seanad which seems to regard anything beyond a flip-phone as high-falutin’, one would have one’s doubts.
I had a discussion with some work colleagues recently where I was a dismissed as a Cassandra for worrying about automation in the workplace and its effect on employment. It made me realise that you can’t blame Irish politicians for reflecting their voters’ concerns, or lack of. But don’t we pay these guys to be looking over the hill at what is coming next?
Consider this: Andrew Puzder, President-Elect Trump’s nominee as Labour secretary, the man tasked with managing employment rights in the US has as a fast food CEO openly speculated about replacing his staff with automated systems. Apparently robots won’t call in sick or strike or sue him for discrimination. This is real.
Next time you’re in a supermarket, look at the shifting balance between staff operating a till and the automated tills where you serve yourself. Remember when those tills were introduced for convenience? To avoid queuing behind that person in front of you who on reaching the till always seemed either startled by the concept of a paper-based money system or indeed that they had to pay at all? Now we queue to serve ourselves as the number of human servers dwindles.
Remember when every bus had a conductor? Is there anyone willing to say 100% that there’ll be no automation of the Luas? Ludicrous, they will say. Sure you can’t have a driverless train given how mad Dublin drivers are. But that’s not how it will happen. What will happen is that the trains will be automated but the drivers kept initially to “supervise”, allowing the company to gradually reduce numbers by natural wastage. Then we’ll all discover that the Luas has actually been automated for years. If you have been to Disneyland or through many major airports you’ve already been on an automated train.
The question for Irish (and every other western) society is how do we deal with the employment implications? Automation will push down labour costs as more people accept less wages for fewer jobs, until automation gets even cheaper. But in many instances jobs will be actually destroyed. The old argument about creative destruction still holds to a certain degree. Many former blacksmiths ended up building the cars that destroyed their old trades. But now those jobs are being replaced by robots in car factories. Some of the old car workers may well become engineers who design or build the robots, until robots start building and designing themselves. But at every stage the sheer volume of people needed to upskill to the next level gets less and less. That’s the point: it’s cheaper to make do with fewer but more highly skilled people.
That’s the challenge: not everybody can be a software engineer, and what do we do when the jobs beneath simply don’t exist in the same numbers? When a supermarket late shift has maybe two or three very modestly paid teenagers supervising 30 robots repacking shelves? There will of course be jobs that humans might be better at, such as senior care which we know will be a growth industry given western demographics, but lower paid repetitive jobs are ripe for technological obliteration. There may not be, quite simply, enough decent paying jobs to go around.
If the Dail is not thinking about this, then who is? Who should be planning for a future where labour exceeds demand, and where many of those with even with jobs barely exist on low wages? Is a universal basic income the answer? Is technology restriction? Is an expansion of public sector employment? Should we bring back jobs like bus conductors not because it will make buses more efficient, but to simply give people the dignity of work? Will we pay people to actually be artists and playwrights? How will we pay for it all?
We often look upon Ireland as a permanent victim nation, constantly battered by the decisions of greater nations or global forces. But we also have an advantage we rarely speak of: as a small nation we can change direction fast. From eradicating tuberculosis to switching to the euro, this country can do something fast if it wants to. But we have to have the vision. How do we start?
Perhaps it’s time for some of the younger members of the Oireachtas to put together an Oireachtas committee on the future, with a clear brief to bring in those looking at the problems of the future, from technology to senior care to employment to pensions.