Automation is for the best

OK I'm getting sick of writing tweets defending automation from social justice warriors (of which I'm one: check my tweets @theitskeptic) who want to shut it down or slow it down.

Much is said in the media about how this time the technology revolution will put people out of work, unlike the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, or the information revolution. Somehow artificial intelligence and robotics are supposed to be different to all past automation. Of course they’re not.


First let's deal with "artificial intelligence". It's not. It is machine learning algorithms. The only intelligence in there was put there by a human. When it looks intelligent, it's just a party trick. We are so far away from machine intelligence, it is not a practical consideration in any timeline. I'm disappointed by a few of our thought leaders being suckered by the hype. It's worse than blockchain.

Tasks and toil

Computers are mechanistic. They automate only that which is defined and repeatable.

Computers aren't going to do knowledge work any time soon, despite all the nonsense in the media. They have zero contextual awareness, zero ability to adapt, zero ability to deal with anything outside their programming e.g. a human with a special request.

Automation takes away tasks, specifically toil. It empowers people to do higher value work, and it enhances their ability to do existing work.

Knowledge workers

In the short term, automation won’t take your job - if you're reading this - because:

  • In most knowledge work, there is a backlog of work for you to do, which won’t go away even if you get more efficient.
  • Automation frees you up to do higher value work, more important work.
  • There isn’t a knowledge worker in the world who gets done all the important work they feel they should get done, because they are constantly dragged away by urgent toil.
  • In most sectors, the nature of work is constantly advancing, usually driven by the breakneck advances in technology. Most jobs don’t look anything like they did decades ago, and much of the change comes because the work we did then is automated or obsolete now.
  • We all have opportunities for reinvention. Travel agents aren’t out of work: they crossed over into new jobs building on the same skills. New jobs open up all the time that simply didn’t exist for the previous generation.

Low-skilled labour

When automation does take jobs, it takes low-skilled labour jobs in the short term.

Society must look after our low-skilled labour. Resisting automation is not how to do it. Automation increases social efficiency which generates prosperity.
Redistributing that prosperity is a different issue. Resisting automation because the wrong people get rich or get poor cuts off our nose to spite our face. Don't fight the source of the prosperity; fight the way it gets handed out. When business gets more efficient, society gets richer. A civilised society shared that money around to look after the affected workers.

Long term

In the long-term, labour is a resource that is always exploited. By definition low skill jobs are easy to learn, labour is fluid. Automation has been happening for millennia but unemployment levels are unchanged.

As well as agriculture, building, and manufacturing, low skill labour works in service industries and clerical. The primary purpose of information technology is to eliminate clerical jobs. So if you work in IT you've been complicit in this all along. It's nothing new.

The worst impact of changing technology on labour comes when it has pooled regionally: mining, steel, cars, agriculture. Half the human race live in cities now, and growing. Cities create fluidity: alternate jobs and markets are on hand.


Luddite attitudes to fear new technologies are nothing new. I expect IT people to be smarter than that (though apparently not). Machine learning is just another form of automation.


See also

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