Science-fiction promised that we'd have loads of amazing technology and that we'd all be working, at most, a 20-hour week by now. Well, we have the amazing technology, but we're working longer than ever. And it doesn't matter how many fitness wearables you strap round your wrist - that's not good for your body.
So, Joe Sparrow argues, we should be grateful, not fearful, for the advent of automation, which is already replacing the most repetitive of human jobs – and is coming for the ones you might not think can be automated...
Working more than 55 hours a week raises your chance of a stroke by 33%. In Japan, overwork kills 10,000 people per year. Conclusion: Work is bad for you. We should not work if possible.
Stop working, now.
So, let's not work. While some rage at the likelihood of automation killing 38% of jobs within 10 years – and who doesn't feel a pang of vicarious anxiety for the truck drivers and shop assistants whose jobs will be initially gobbled up – I long for the day when all our jobs are obsolete.
Instead we can just lounge around on beaches, idle around in green idylls, punch the air in nightclubs, or whatever.
It’s easy to visualise whose jobs will vanish first, and even what the cause will be. Or is it?
Some worry that this wave of automation is the effect of a brutal, end-capitalist society who are cutting the legs off from under the poorest people. Or maybe they're being liberated from monotony, suddenly wallowing in free time in which they can simply… live. What’s more right-on and left-wing than freeing the workers first of all?
And no, don’t sweat about something as simple as money, silly! Once the robots have taken our jobs, we’ll shift to a cashless society or a bitcoin-like micro-payment/barter system or maybe we’ll all be able to get fat off the profit of the robots, and lounge around on a Universal Basic Income while our robot servants do the work we don’t need to any more.
Actually, that’s the key point about automation and work: there are certain jobs that will be automated faster than others. It’s easy to visualise whose jobs will vanish first, and even what the cause will be. Or is it?
Book, line and sinker
Imagine, you want a new book. One made of paper and ink. Something trashy, to take on holiday and guzzle next to the pool. Well, in the automated future, if you go to a shop, the salespeople will be largely gone, replaced by automated salespoints and robotic shelf-replenishers.
Sorry, pesky humans, but robots can do manual work faster, longer and better than you.
If you order online, you bypass the shop anyway - and in the warehouse, your order is processed automatically, relayed to an automated picker which plucks the book from the shelf, automatically sends it to a dispatch-bot which packs it and stacks it in an automated track which eventually, automatically brings it to your door.
And then you hop on a plane which is auto-piloted to the Costa del Sol, where your self-driving car takes you to the hotel, and so on. And when you get to the hotel, hopefully, all the pickers, packers, dispatchers and drivers that are now out of work will be resting by the pool too.
Sorry, pesky humans, but robots can do manual work faster, longer and better than you.
These are the obvious job-scrapping robots.
The only people who are safe in this whole process are the creatives, right? The book’s author, the cover designer, the curators at the publishing company - whose exquisite taste enables books like “Rebels: City of Indra” by Kylie and Kendall Jenner to exist - and the hard-working scribes who write the reviews: they’re safe. Robots can’t replace us... can they?
Well, like, duh. The robots are coming for the “creatives” too.
Read all about it
The first “creative” job to go might be the news journalist.
After all, reckons automators, what is "news reporting" other than a replicable series of processes? Just sniff out a breaking story, gather evidence, quotes and pictures, sift out the red herrings, collate into a news article framework, and distribute out to the masses as fast as possible.
In a world of reasonably-believable Twitter bots, it doesn't sound too much like science fiction, and maybe it’s time for journalists to start drinking heavily and worrying where their next paid job is coming from. Oh wait…
And speaking of drinking, tools like Reuters’ News Tracer drink straight from the firehose: analysing all of Twitter and picking out the tweets that might be the start of a news story.
It is taught phrases that might be associated with a sudden event - people are inclined to tweet a warning to avoid an area if they think a bomb has gone off, for instance - and it can then alert a journalist of its findings.
The Washington Post already uses a similar tool: Heliograf creates the basis of a story from pre-defined parameters and a flesh-and-blood journo fills in the gaps. On US election day, nearly 500 articles were created this way.
Wordsmith, a “Natural Language Generation Engine” will turn a spreadsheet of data - let’s say, today’s New York Stock Exchange listings - and make them into news stories, reporting on the ebb and flow of the stocks and what it means.
From here, the next steps are easy to imagine: you teach AI to take its initial findings, build an article to our liking, share it and then continually iterate it as the story develops. (Journalists will continue to tweet furiously.)
>10 CREATE "CLICKBAIT"
>20 GOTO 10
As a Clickbait Content Generation Professional (or writer, as we used to be called), I for one welcome our robot overlords, and look forward to the day when I can finally let the robots do this stuff.
Also: how can I even think about resisting?
After all, for the last year or so, I have been using Speechmatics' brilliant AI-and-Neural-network-driven voice-to-text system to write up transcripts of my interviews, which I then edit into something readable.
Why not bypass that step and let AI do it all? I can still put my name on it - and get paid for the AI’s work!
Excited by the idea of letting a robot do the graft, I cleared my workweek diary of the pesky work part, pencilled in five solid days of loafing, video games, and drinking, and sat back to Google publicly available AI-writing services.
First up was AI-Writer and it immediately seemed like a big piece of automatically-crafted cake. The home page boasts, “Just feed our AI Author a headline, and it will do all the research and writing work for you. Yes, it's really that simple!”
No, it's really not. I tapped in a headline for an article I was planning on writing for MONTAG – but which now seemed like a much worse use of my time – added my email address, and hit enter.
“Usually,” the confirmation window chirruped, “you will receive the requested text within minutes, but sometimes it takes hours, depending on the workload!”
After not receiving my requested 1500 words on “3D Printed Human Organs,” I let out a long sigh, scrubbed “Go to the zoo all day!” From my calendar, and wrote the damn article for myself.
I then tried a more simple request: 300 words on “Virtual Reality.” To spread my bets, I also put in a request for 200 words on “Sausages.”
Workload must be overwhelming for the neural networks tippity-tapping at the keyboards over at AI Writer HQ, because, dear reader, I received nothing all – except the sneaking suspicion that I was just dumb enough to put my email address into a spammer’s database.
My snark was unfounded. A few months later, quietly, the AI-written articles dropped into my inbox. The results were wildly impressive, although not in the straightforward way you’d expect. Instead, AI-writer appears to have stumbled on - and I mean this sincerely - a way to create brilliant, free-association-type articles on anything you desire.
Here’s an excerpt from the full AI-scribed article on “Virtual Reality.” It’s an article that zips between Spanish and English at will, and is full of wonderful almost-non-secateurs like:
“A virtual world is considered plausible if the interaction in it is logical and coherent. In no other country are transgender genders as accepted as in Thailand, nowhere else are there as many gender equalizations as here.”
”Fresh fresh fresh fresh fresh fresh butter”
My joke request for an article on “Sausages” was treated with the contempt it deserved, which suggests that, while AI may not be a great writer, it’s definitely aware of how to troll its users:
“Snagsby are retouched with a damp cloth, the best tea service is put out, and there is an excellent arrangement made of delicate new bread, crispy twists, fresh fresh fresh fresh fresh fresh butter, thin slices of ham, German tongue and sausage, and delicate rows of delicate anchovies that nestle in the parsley.”
However, there is undeniable promise in this tech.
My initial request, with the much more focused subject of “3D-printed organs” has convinced me that AI-writer’s tech is actually going to be a useful tool.
The copy it provides doesn’t quite pass as human, but only because the article doesn’t flow from one sentence to the next. It’s easy to see how an editor could request an AI article, and then tidy it up into something that’s readable and workable - just like editors do with junior writers’ work today.
Discouraged, I started gloomily writing this very article. Then I found WordAi - which, although it wouldn’t create an article for me, promised to make my junky writing a lot more betterer than what I could of done off of my own.
Unfortunately, WordAi doesn’t want people like me to actually use their three-day free trial, as it requires credit card details, and for you to set a calendar reminder to remember to cancel your subscription after two days, and even the dumbest AI knows that no-one has time to go through that rigmarole.
Fortunately, there is an example of their AI-whelped stories for us to check out. Gaze upon it, and sleep soundly knowing that our cheap ‘n’ cheerful AI-scribed future might consist of blockbuster opening lines like this:
”Creating and keeping exceptional working relationships with customers is really one of the very significant investments you could make in your firm's future. Cost and availability of products and services may fluctuate, however a high regard amongst clientele and standing is equally significant for customer satisfaction.”
I gave up. I resigned myself to the cycle of waiting until the last minute to write thousands of words for frustrated clients, and put my dream of life without keyboard-calloused fingertips back on the shelf.
Imagine the horror of a post-creative world where Buzzfeed listicle writers, advertising executives, Instagram spokesmodels, and Vloggers are callously tossed onto the scrapheap
For now, you’ll just have to gulp nervously and imagine the horror of a post-creative world where Buzzfeed listicle writers, advertising executives, Instagram spokesmodels, and Vloggers are callously tossed onto the scrapheap, their vital work instead executed by machines without souls, humanity or self-awareness.
But make no mistake, the machines are coming for your job. And the least-likely career to be subsumed by automation? Therapists. Which is good news, ’cos when your job vanishes, you’ll need someone to talk to.