AI & Capitalism’s “Labor Problem”

As the toffs gather in Davos this week, they can celebrate that the end of the thorniest impediment to their enrichment is on the horizon.

Labor has always been a problem for corporations. Each worker is unique, which means their skills and limitations are variable. Their productivity is never consistent, if only because One day is never the same as the next, thanks to differences in mood or physical condition. Every other input into making things is fairly consistent, which makes processes reliable. Workers catch head colds or lose their concentration.

Human employees need to be taught and then reminded how to do things, and then they’re often set in their ways and unwilling to change.

Perhaps worse of all, today’s workers need to be fulfilled and feel some sense of belonging to the companies where they work. And then they want more. Of everything. Money. Recognition. Freedom.

This is where the miracle of technology comes in: It literally takes work out of peoples’ hands and does it instead, and demands nothing in return.

The premise of “productivity” is to do more with less, which allows the owners of companies to pocket the greater difference between higher revenue at lesser costs. Makers of widgets review every input and every step of what they do in order to find ways to take costs out of the production equation. Use cheaper materials. Attach things with one screw instead of two. Route deliveries more efficiently.

Employ fewer people or pay them less because tech does more.

Put aside all of the cost externalities that companies get to ignore, such as environmental degradation, the destruction of entire communities, and the multi-generational impact of unemployment or under-employment, and you get a neat little self-referencing philosophy of progress.

This is the miracle of capitalism.

Not surprisingly, ever since the Industrial Revolution, corporations have focused their investments, expectations, and efforts to innovate ways to move this productivity needle.

People have always been the problem, for the reasons I cited above. They’ve also organized to make things more difficult. The Luddites petitioned their government to slow their displacement by machines and were ignored…so they just went out and smashed the machines for a bit. Hollywood creatives recently negotiated a deal to slow the adoption of AI in their work.

But we have been trained to view such opposition as ignorant or old-fashioned. It’s stupid to oppose innovation that benefits everyone, though some far more directly than others. Progress is inevitable so trying to stop or slow it is futile. Governments support it, back then and now.

AI represents the culmination of this evolution. There is no technical limit to what an AI can do in the digital realm, and the machinery already exists for it to accomplish lots of tasks in the physical world. AI can learn faster and more reliably than people, and it can work 24/7 without demanding to be included in more group meetings or better health insurance.

It’s not just a machine but a learning, adaptive tool that will contribute to continued productivity improvements in peoples’ work, like technology has done for centuries, only then it will replace them. It’s the ultimate destination for capitalism’s progress.

Anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth.

What happens to the people who are put out of work? Beyond lame quips about “finding more meaningful occupations,” the only tangible answers we hear are that 1) some people will find work caring for AI and machines, and 2) others will do the messiest, most dangerous work on which companies don’t want to risk their expensive tech.

Everyone else? Sure, there are retraining programs here and there, but people are destined to lose the race with AI. There’s no way around it.

No, the only thing that’s clear is that the rich will be celebrating lots in the mountains this week. We’ve bought their inane blather about “corporate responsibility” as they continue to destroy the environment. We’re doing no better at understanding or responding to their massive investment in using AI to move human workers off their balance sheets.

It’s said that in business, there’s no such thing as problems, only opportunities.

AI is the greatest opportunity capitalism has ever found.

“I Want More Robots In The Office” Said No One Ever

A South Korean company has 100 robots roaming around its offices looking for things to do, according to this article in the Financial Times.

The gizmos look like garbage cans on wheels and are limited to making deliveries. The prospect of an electrified box greeting reluctant office workers at the office door doesn’t sound promising to me. I’m willing to bet that the global market for them will be small.

The puff piece is really about the country’s desire to outsource a variety of IT services, with references to the office experiment and reliance on robots in factories as a proof point for its greater goal.

The article claims that the country’s low birth rate has prompted its adoption of robots, which leads to the intriguing silly thought that more procreation might slow the onslaught of automation in our lives.

But that’s a topic for another essay.

It turns out that the country’s biggest internet provider has 600,000 servers cranking away in Sejong City creating virtual models that mimic machines and entire cities and then test and plan functions in the real world. They also operate those office robots remotely, along with others that handle delivery functions at its facility.

So, those office robots are about as aware of their surroundings as rodents or healthy plants.Their brains are in those servers which are then fed by the cloud, where data is shared, collected, and constantly improved.

This is what the South Korean propaganda is selling.

It’s nothing unique, per se, as Microsoft along with Google and just about every other technology adjacent company are spending zillions to make zillions more moving intelligence into gizmos and clouds. The idea is to replace all those bad, imperfect, or otherwise useless things people do with their sloppy consciousness with the choreographed clarity and perfection of calculations made by smart systems.

The problem is that nobody is asking for it.

There’s a massive and distributed propaganda effort underway to change that fact, and the story about office robots contains both elements: First, it talks about clunky, nonthreatening robots popping up in everyday settings. A version of these stories follows all the innocent tomfoolery coming from generative AI helping employees write faster emails and kids cheat on their homework.

Look, robots aren’t scary, they’re silly and fun!

Second, it talks about how aggressively AI makers are marketing the labor and therefore cost-savings of swapping human workers for machines, many of the latter amounting to nothing more than invisible code running on those distant servers. Businesses have invested heavily in the promise of excising jobs from their ledgers next year.

Don’t look, but robots are money-makers!

Add all of the blather about self-aware AI deciding one day to destroy humanity and you get a potent cocktail of distraction and reinvention that is existentially relevant right now.

There’ll be more robots popping up in places so we can deride them, just as employers will more aggressively cut staff because AI will do those jobs. Investors will celebrate their returns as their neighbors look for ways to pay their bills. Government and academic types will hold thoughtful conferences and issue detailed papers and polices that will barely question or slow the process underway.

The fix is in.

Happy New Year.