The Second Machine Age
Self-driving trucks and cars, artificial neural networks, robot waiters, self-checkout registers, and additional technologies are fully automating society in what analysts are calling the Second Machine Age (the first being the Industrial Revolution). The advancements of this age promise an enticing future. Each new innovation simplifies our manual workload and frees up our time for more engaging activities such as personal hobbies, artistic endeavours, or philosophical pursuits.
Defining Automation Technology
Technology is often used as a broad term applied to all of the latest gadgets. Smartphones, laptops, cameras, etc. come to mind. More precisely, though, technology is humanity's set of tools with which we simplify our tasks. Anyone who has played a game like Civilization involving tech trees would recognize that historically, technology is a progression from simple hunting and farming tools to modern industrial and personal equipment. Automation technology, then, is the epitome, for it is any technology that works to produce abundance with minimal human input. And more than that, automation has the potential to develop upon itself autonomously with the involvement of artificial intelligence!
The Social Problem
As with any new technology, those perceiving it with traditional mindsets often overlook the simplification which the technology is intended to achieve, instead finding only problems and inconveniences. Most people don't care about the effects of advancing technology because they don't understand the possibilites in a personal context. If, then, we do not allow technology to achieve its purpose, we will live in a constant state of self-frustration. It is for this reason that automation poses a serious social problem. In particular, automation conflicts with our embedded ideas about work. Jobs are a tradition incorporated into the American ideals of capitalism, free enterprise, and opportunity. Automation comes along and says, hey, let me do that for you! But because our society is so obsessed with occupation, to the point of basing our entire living on jobs, there is predictable outcry. A brief glance at the headlines reveals such seriously counterintuitive statements as “Technology is Destroying Jobs”, “Automation is Leading to Economic Collapse”, and “Robopocalypse”.
The consensus seems to be that the world will go full-Terminator! *facepalm*
The result of advancing automation in a society centered around jobs is greater unemployment. Even though technology is merely meant to be beneficial, to eliminate drudgery and enable more meaningful opportunities, the technology itself is blamed for the effects of unemployment: diminished incomes as well as lowered human dignity. Traditional business viewpoints and the media see automation as an advancing threat to jobs, affordable living, and the proven success of capitalism. As Erik Brynjolfsson, future analyst and head of M.I.T.'s Center for Digital Business puts it, "Tech progress can make the pie bigger yet still make a lot of people worse off. It's the big paradox of our era." As with any paradox, it is only apparent because of a confusion of principles. In fact, the renowned economist Keynes described technological unemployment as "a temporary phase of maladjustment". In this case, the social institution of workfare as the sole source of a citizen's income is beginning to show its age. With the advancement of automation, welfare implementations such as the basic income solution may be necessary for the greater good of the community, to take full advantage of the benefits of automation.
As with any technology, automation has little reason to go away, and on the contrary it is both the driving force and the product of societal change. Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns describes the exponential increase in technology. And regardless of what might be ideal for the capitalist-driven economy, automata are better at what they do. They will automate the roadways, they will automate the supermarkets, they will automate the arts and music, they will automate our bills! As C.G.P. Grey makes clear, automative technology is here to stay:
This is not a race against the machines. If we personify and race against automation as a rival, we lose to concepts of our own contrivance.