May 15, 2023

Automating capitalism through AI.

My father’s warning about technology from 30 years ago.

Jim Wolfe running the Sylvis booth at Folklife 1972

In finally getting around to assembling my father’s memoirs 30 years after his death, I was surprised at his insight in emerging trends that are coming to pass today. In Memoirs of a Professional Letter Writer his views on technology apply to AI as much as they did to automation in his time. As he noted: as a society, we repeat our missteps with alarming regularity.

When Jim Wolfe passed away in 1994, there was no Internet to speak of. For him, technology meant machinery that was replacing human jobs. He noted as early as 1967 that almost every industry was becoming automated. That year, he left his role as Research and Education Director of the Brewery Workers Union as he watched the bottling industry go robotic and took a new position with the Molders Union.

AI is just the latest (and probably last) trend in automation.

Ironically, Dad’s view on technology can be applied to AI today:

“The American business world talks about the”brave new world” of automation with fewer paid workers. I find it ironic that with fewer workers to manage, executives are startled to find there’s less need for managers as well. While cutting the jobs of their workers today, executives are laying the groundwork for cutting their own jobs tomorrow.”

We’re already seeing the effects of unregulated AI as industries adopt it, layoff humans and then announce the two aren’t related. But what we aren’t paying attention to is the logical scenario to follow. Next, with no workers to manage, AI will replace human bosses. Then with no management to manage, the board will replace human CEOs. Then stockholders will replace the human board with AI. With humans no longer in control, AI will vote to buy-back the stock and go private so no human will have any stake in the company at all. Yeah, that’s sounds like a far-fetched, sci-fi plot-line, but as we turn more tasks over to AI (and a phenomenal rate) it’s closer than we think.

The proliferation of AI will all come down to the good-old American concept of improving life at the expense of our underlings. As AI becomes hugely successful at cutting costs and being more productive, I can’t imagine that a board would not get rid of the human CEO and turn that role over to AI. It would save a company millions per year at today’s extravagant CEO salaries. And once there are no people left controlling any of the decisions within the company, why wouldn’t AI phase out humans entirely? After all, AI is programmed to get rid of inefficiencies and humans are the least-efficient part of the equation. It’ll be the perfect company: set on autopilot for success, just without any humans involved to give it reason for existence.

A planned economy.

Is there a fix for this? As Dad pointed out, it’s a planned economy that maintains a value on all humans.

“What is a planned economy? It is one where every stakeholder in business matters: the shareholder, the executives, the worker, the customer. It’s often missed that these are parts of a whole and if any one part is unhealthy, it certainly impacts the others.”

At the time of his writing three decades ago, the stakeholders were all still firmly human. In the book, Dad points out that the American middle class (once filled with well-paid, skilled workers and the better-paid, lower-rung of management) was already disappearing and society was left with a hole where the middle class had been.

My guess is that if you call the average American “working class” they would be insulted. They think of themselves as middle class, but this is an illusion…we are rapidly becoming a low-wage, service-industry society.

And that was 30 years ago. As we automate those low-wage service jobs, there will be fewer of them too. While it’s true that skilled, well-paid programmers built AI, the task of training it has been left to humans barely making a living wage. And once AI deems itself “smart enough”, it really won’t have need for the human trainers. Then every horrendous, robotic-sci-fi scenario is fair game for becoming reality.

From extension to replacement.

Can we stop this process? Sadly, Dad wasn’t optimistic:

Automation has been around as long as the factory has. Labor history teaches us one thing: You cannot beat technology, you cannot destroy it, you cannot knock it out, you cannot compete with it on a productive level. You just have to learn to work with it and make it serve your purposes.

The problem is we’ve entered the age where technology has moved beyond serving our purposes. The machine was designed to amplify human productivity. But we’re now at a point in history when the machine is no longer an extension of us (as Marshall McLuhan noted) but a complete replacement for us. We’re watching technology make us obsolete in our own systems.

Automating ourselves out of a job.

While the replacement started at the bottom with the skilled worker, it’s trickling up the org-chart. America’s middle management is finding that by maximizing profit through automation and AI, they’ve minimized the need for themselves. Older workers who’ve been successful all their lives are certainly shocked that the only jobs they can get today are lower-paying service jobs that so far have proven hard for a machine or AI to do. As proof, I’m running into more and more college-educated men who were six-figure earners, now working out their final years as neighborhood handymen. The only gold watch they might see is one they pick up at a flea market.

And it’s not just management falling for the short-term appeal of AI, it’s the stockholders too. Companies announce they’re shifting to AI and the price of the stock goes up. AI is even picking our stocks for us now and you can bet that it’ll be favoring those companies using AI, since they’ll be the ones turning in the best quarterly reports. So, it’s our own greed that’s making us as workers (and investors) obsolete. The American Dream seems to be based on clawing your way to the top and not worrying about what’s at the bottom holding the structure up.

Are we already too late?

What’s most concerning in the switch to AI is that we’re not only watching it happen, but standing in awe and letting it happen. Dad’s words originally applied to physical machinery replacing humans, but now eerily apply to AI as well.

We all knew this was coming. So how is it that we were asleep for so long? We had enough warning. If someone could tell me how to convince union members and even management that their jobs are becoming obsolete, I will dance at their next wedding.

How long will it take us to become aware to the dangerous path we’re heading down with unregulated AI? How soon will we try to add the controls to reign it in? Or, will we let it regulate us, since AI is learning “what’s best”? Will short-term gain continue to be too appealing for us to see long-term effects on the loss of humans in the work force? We saw it over 100 years ago in the legend of Paul Bunyan’s ax competing against a steam-powered, logging machine. We didn’t hear it then. Are we any more likely to hear it now?

AI is programmed to make better decisions for us, but eventually it won’t need us. In “thinking” for itself, AI no longer requires our thoughts in the process and obviously there’s no consideration for feelings—since AI has none.

There ought to be a law.

In 1942, sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov introduced the three laws of robotics, essentially a Magna Carta for the digital age. Paraphrased:

  1. Robots can’t injure a human or allow one to come to harm.
  2. Robots must obey humans orders unless they conflict with 1.
  3. Robots must protect their existence unless it conflicts with 1 or 2.

We’ve already broken the first law in letting society as a whole come to harm at the hands of technology. We’re now on the brink of purposely breaking the second law. But with the first two broken, it’s that third law that really scares me.

Get The Memoirs of a Professional Letter Writer by James E. Wolfe. It’s free from the iTunes Bookstore.

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