It has come to pass, that AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robotics (the word robot comes from the Russian language, meaning work) are moving ahead as fast as they can be built. AI and robotics are inseparable, presenting a one-two punch to anyone who gets in its way, or, in the way of the people who are creating it. To be precise about our word "robot," it is of Czech origin, but "work" in Russian is "robota."
AI, robotics, the internet and the global economy, a synergistic economy-changing juggernaut, have made things very good for some and quite painful for others. As the unions in the U.S. declined, the wages of the non-union employees fell, as when there were unions they lifted all wages as workers tried to get a job at the union shop and the non-union employers had to compete with employers paying union wages. Why couldn’t the unions embrace the internet? Why couldn’t the unions organize around programmers and coders? Unions couldn’t get the attention of programmers, systems analysts, and the like, because the demand was so high that wages skyrocketed, and there weren’t many companies abusing programmers for very long, because they would just be poached by another organization where the grass was greener; their gourmet lunch could be ordered and prepared in-house and they made, median salary, $175,000 per year at Google or $240,000 at Facebook. (Those numbers might be dated, as supplied by The Wall Street Journal some time ago.)
The shortages of tech employees, which continues to this day, drove up wages and even pulled in tech types from all over the globe who came to the U.S. on an H-1B visa and lived the American Dream. Then the organizations realized that “global” meant tech types imported from other countries, lowering payroll costs, always a good thing, so the American Dream for the indigenous American population that went to college for a well-paid tech job, were slowly tossed into the street for workers who didn’t mind living with eight of their relatives in a two-bedroom apartment as long as they could have running water and a reliable supply of food.
Shareholders and management of American corporations realized that profits could be maximized by offshoring, outsourcing and hiring temporary workers. The idea that employers and employees owed each other loyalty and would stick together to help each other down the economic path disappeared; the pursuit of wealth that had previously been competitive became ruthless and unforgiving. Shareholders became obsessed with short-term profits, and offered handsome bonuses and astronomical salaries to any CEO who could consistently carve out quarterly profits. The instant gratification of money every quarter for shareholders established new performance standards. Companies that didn’t pay enough quarterly were cut up for scrap, sold off as low-performers.
As a CEO, you could earn $25 million, even without a business degree or Ivy-League pedigree. Of course, the working class wasn’t worthy of much more than $10.00 an hour, and overtime was never going to happen, what with all of the untapped talent, some of it college-educated, but educated in the wrong fields trying to repay thousands of dollars in student loans.
The cognitive dissonance set in, as the HR people publicly lamented that they lacked qualified candidates except for when they rejected someone, (if they bothered to send a rejection email at all) in which case they told them they had over one-hundred applicants and it was a terribly difficult choice. Facebook lied continuously about privacy while selling every scrap of information they could attain and allowed conniving fabricators to say almost anything while promising they would restrict spurious postings. Story after story, explanation after explanation made little or no sense, unless you had the “executive perspective” which seemed to essentially rationalize or justify any behavior that generated money; dedication and loyalty were deleted from the business vocabulary.
Even with hundreds of billions in their coffers, many of the large organizations found summarily firing their lowest performers instead of attempting to cultivate talent, and encouraging the bad-mouthing of fellow employees was considered a great ticket to success. Of course, no one in the company said Jeff Bezos was underperforming. Regarding dividends from Amazon, from The Ticker, June 12, 2018: “The simple answer is no, as Amazon does not currently issue dividends and is not likely to do so anytime soon. Even a small dividend would be enormously costly for the company and would get in the way of other priorities such as paying off debt, investing in ongoing operations, and targeting big-ticket acquisitions like that of Whole Foods Market in 2017.” We have 1900% growth in a company that can’t pay dividends. Where are the activist investors when we need them?
But then, things changed.
It turns out, many of the functions of the top management were capable of being replaced by Artificial Intelligence. The robots that had replaced the assembly-line workers began replacing the upper management. Of course, the upper management who rationalized outsourcing, offshoring, and temp-based workers saw a problem, but it was too late. Financial reports and analysis needed only a $15.00 an hour data clerk to put the information into the computer, making financial analysts obsolete. According to Richard Baldwin, professor at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, “globalization will soon go after white-collar jobs with a vengeance.”
In an encouraging passage from The Wall Street Journal’s review of Balwin’s book, “The Globotics Upheaval” reads: “these fast-changing technologies will expose relatively well-paid jobs to foreign competition. As this occurs, people who have until now enjoyed mainly benefits from globalization will experience its costs first hand.” Fairly soon, artificial intelligence machines called “globots” by Mr. Baldwin, will take over offices, and the only work remaining will be the work that globots can’t do, and that won’t be much.
At the end of the article, reviewer Marc Levinson asks: “How do we keep society together when most employment in the information, service and financial sectors can abruptly be shifted abroad to workers earning much lower wages? How will we deal with the anger that is likely to swell as articulate, well-educated people find their skills devalued by technological changes that they cannot escape?” I leave the question to you, dear readers.