Are you freaked out by the robotics revolution? If so, you’re not alone. News stories projecting a near future in which as much as 50 percent of the workforce will be displaced by robots have a lot of folks conjuring visions of sci-fi dystopias.
To prepare for this future, Shunde, China has created a program appropriately named “replacing humans with robots.” Apparently, about half of factory workers in Shunde, a city of more than 2.4 million (among whom half are migrants who moved to the city for work), will soon be automated out of their jobs. Many will be forced to return to their home provinces where it is predicted that the robot revolution will catch up with them in about 10-20 years, throwing them out of work again. And China is just the canary in the mineshaft of the global economy where robots are concerned.
When computers can detect your heart rate, identify you via thumb print, and touch screens become a more effective means of communicating with customers in increasingly multilingual cities, fast food workers, grocery store clerks, even the folks who renew drivers’ licenses at the DMV become obsolete. Sure, somebody has to make all those bots, but many predict machines will eventually takeover those jobs, too.
This future scenario was studied by the Pew Research Center in August 2014. Pew interviewed 1,896 experts, asking “Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?”
Here’s what they found,
Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.
The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
That’s a pretty bleak report. I mean, sure, 52 percent of “experts” claim “human ingenuity” will save the day, but the basis of their optimism is “faith.” Profit, on the other hand, is what is driving this revolution. The drive for profit, not faith in humanity, is what has brought us to this point of industrial development.
But whichever side’s predictions prevail, what is certain is that all this change is going to scare the heck out of people, especially people already living in financial vulnerability, which is most of us. Scary political and economic times often, maybe even usually, result in increases in bigotry and scapegoating. And this is what got me thinking about robots as a race issue.
In a handy little book called Racism: A Short History, the great historian, George M. Frederickson, contrasts the effect of rapid modernization on German and American race relations at the turn of the 20th century. He points out that the United States was a fundamentally modern state in which it was believed among whites that modernity and rationality distinguished Caucasians from so-called “primitive” and “savage” Blacks.
Because of this, racial fears in a rapidly modernizing U.S. were mainly expressed in terms of exclusion and separation, not genocide. But, in Germany, modernization provoked widespread fear, not just of economic change but of changes to the cultural basis of German society. German Jews were stereotyped as the group in possession of the requisite qualities to take advantage of modernization, provoking resentment and fear that expressed itself in a form of a racialized othering that soon turned genocidal.
Not that long ago, during the U.S.-Japan auto wars of the 1970s and 80s, racist backlash against Japanese innovation in auto manufacturing, giving them an edge over U.S. makers, caused Asian Americans to become targets of scapegoating and racial violence. The famous case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American mistaken for Japanese and beaten to death by disgruntled white autoworkers is but one example.
Today, Asia is driving the robotics revolution that may cost many of us our jobs. Here in the U.S., Asians are over-represented in STEM industries and stereotyped as having the qualities necessary to take best advantage of the robot age. In the American imagination, robots may have Asian faces.
We have some time. This change won’t happen overnight and dystopia is by no means assured. In a more hopeful scenario, the displacement of so many workers will force us to reconsider our value as human beings, not just as units of industrial productivity.
Half of us is a lot of people. When half of us is unemployed, the usual racist justifications for inequity – a (black) culture of poverty, welfare queens, and entitlement junkies don’t work so well at dividing (non)workers. Meanwhile, rebellion on that scale would be difficult is not impossible to quell. So maybe there’s a silver lining here, but to benefit from it, we’ll have to convince folks not to turn to other racist justifications and put Asian faces on job-stealing robots.