Automation and the London tube strike

I was invited on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme to discuss automation this morning, but on Radio 4, studio audio quality is a higher priority than content quality, while quality of life for me is a higher priority than radio exposure, and going into Ipswich greatly reduces my quality of life. We amicably agreed they should find someone else.

There will be more automation in the future. On one hand, if we could totally automate every single job right now, all the same work would be done, so the world would still have the same overall wealth, but then we’d all be idle so our newly free time could be used to improve quality of life, or lie on beaches enjoying ourselves. The problem with that isn’t the automation itself, it is mainly the deciding what else to do with our time and establishing a fair means of distributing the wealth so it doesn’t just stay with ‘the mill owners’. Automation will eventually require some tweaks of capitalism (I discuss this at length in my book Total Sustainability).

We can’t and shouldn’t automate every job. Some jobs are dull and boring or reduce the worker to too low a level of  dignity, and they should be automated as far as we can economically – that is, without creating a greater problem elsewhere. Some jobs provide people with a huge sense of fulfillment or pleasure, and we ought to keep them and create more like them. Most jobs are in between and their situation is rather more complex. Jobs give us something to do with our time. They provide us with social contact. They stop us hanging around on the streets picking fights, or finding ways to demean ourselves or others. They provide dignity, status, self-actualisation. They provide a convenient mechanism for wealth distribution. Some provide stimulation, or exercise, or supervision. All of these factors add to the value of jobs above the actual financial value add.

The London tube strike illustrates one key factor in the social decision on which jobs should be automated. The tube provides an essential service that affects a very large number of people and all their interests should be taken into account.

The impact of potential automation on individual workers in the tube system is certainly important and we shouldn’t ignore it. It would force many of them to find other jobs, albeit in an area with very low unemployment and generally high salaries. Others would have to change to another role within the tube system, perhaps giving assistance and advice to customers instead of pushing buttons on a ticket machine or moving a lever back and forward in a train cab. I find it hard to see how pushing buttons can offer the same dignity or human fulfillment as directly helping another person, so I would consider that sort of change positive, apart from any potential income drop and its onward consequences.

On the other hand, the cumulative impacts on all those other people affected are astronomically large. Many people would have struggled to get to work. Many wouldn’t have bothered. A few would suffer health consequences due to the extra struggle or stress. Perhaps a few small business on the edge of survival will have been killed. Some tourists won’t come back, a lot will spend less. A very large number of businesses and individuals will suffer significantly to let the tube staff make a not very valid protest.

The interests of a small number of people shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should the interests of a large number of people. If these jobs are automated, a few staff would suffer significantly, most would just move on to other jobs, but the future minor miseries caused to millions would be avoided.

Other jobs that should be automated are those where staff are give undue power or authority over others. Most of us will have had bad experiences of jobsworth staff, perhaps including ticketing staff, whose personal attitude is rather less than helpful and whose replacement by a machine would make the world a better place. A few people sadly seem to relish their power to make someone else’s life more difficult. I am pleased to see widespread automation of check-in at airports for that reason too. There were simply too many check-in assistants who gleefully stood in front of big notices saying that rudeness and abuse will not be tolerated from customers, while happily abusing their customers, creating maximum inconvenience and grief to their customers through a jobsworth attitude or couldn’t-care-less incompetence. Where people are in a position of power or authority, where a job offers the sort of opportunities for sadistic self-actualisation some people get by making other people’s lives worse, there is a strong case for automation to avoid the temptation to abuse that power or authority.

As artificial intelligence and robotics increase in scope and ability, many more jobs will be automated, but more often it will affect parts of jobs. Increasing productivity isn’t a bad thing, nor is up-skilling someone to do a more difficult and fulfilling job than they could otherwise manage. Some parts of any job are dull, and we won’t miss them, if they are replaced by more enjoyable activity. In many cases, simple mechanical or information processing tasks will be replaced by those involving people skills, emotional skills. By automating these bits where we are essentially doing machine work, high technology forces us to concentrate on being human. That is no bad thing.

While automation moves people away from repetitive,boring, dangerous, low dignity tasks, or those that give people too much opportunity to cause problems for others, I am all in favour. Those jobs together don’t add up to enough to cause major economic problems. We can find better work for those concerned.

We need to guard against automation going too far though. When jobs are automated faster than new equivalent or better jobs can be created, then we will have a problem. Not from the automation itself, but as a result of the unemployment, the unbalanced wealth distribution, and all the social problems that result from those. We need to automate sustainably.

Human + machine is better than human alone, but human alone is probably better than machine alone.

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35 responses to “Automation and the London tube strike

  1. Reblogged this on riversounddream and commented:
    Striking and poignant article as we move into the second age of computers, robotics and a more tech dependent society.

  2. Reblogged this on AlternativeMedicineFreedom and commented:
    Dr. Ian Pearson, Futurologist, Conference Speaker, All-round Futures Consultant and writer! A very GOOD writer! enjoy!

  3. Very, very good article! Liked and followed! Thank you!

  4. a really balanced post, that I truly ilked. It`s true: Machines can make the world better, if it`s there for us. I like the thought of a world where creativity is cheered, and where people are encouraged to use more of their skills. Pushing buttons can be awfully boring, no matter how much you love routine! Thank you for sharing:)

  5. Most jobs do not provide dignity, status, and not self-actualisation. They provide a means for investors to have dignity, status, and self-actualisation.

  6. a good article, One reason against all automation is that most people like to speak to a real person in time of need. There are many people in airports, railways and so on who are kind, considerate and cheerfully helpful to the paying customer.

  7. My problem with automation is that it can be hijacked by a hacker and used against us. Imagine a terrorist getting into the computer of the train. He can manipulate it to crash. Can not happen? Some of our worse mistakes are assuming that machines do not make errors and then humans make errors too. Eventually we will have cyborgs and they too will make errors. In fact the only truth in the matter is errors will occur. Ain’t that the truth.

  8. Apart from using the inconvenience caused by the tube strikes, for justifying the concept of automation, let’s see another aspect of the example you bring; the cause of the strike.

    The tube workers are on strike because the government, along with the mayor, plans to fire 950 of them. So they choose to protest. They protest by closing down the underground. Is this the right way to protest? In my opinion no. It causes inconvenience to millions of commuters and little pressure on the perpetrator (the government). A much more efficient way would be to keep the railway working for free, refusing to issue and check tickets. That way, the travelers would be more than happy, no disruption would have been caused, and Cameron would have been more pressured to find a solution than ever, since valuable revenue would be lost every minute at no social expense on the strikers.

    In your post you make a leap of logic; You say that since the strike causes inconvenience, the tube should be automated so no more strikes can be done. Apart from the fact that even an automated tube service can be closed down by the workers who operate it, you don’t even examine the fact that these workers strike for a purpose, nor do you propose a way for them to strike effectively. You just propose a way for Boris Johnson to have his voters happy.

    • I didn’t discuss the cause of the strike because it is irrelevant to my article. I am only interested in it because it suggests a good example of why some things should be automated. I clearly made the point that the interests of the strikers should be considered, but that they are greatly outweighed by the damage and inconvenience they are willing to cause to others. I then used some other examples to clarify the point that jobs where people are tempted to abuse their power and positions over others are among those that should be automated. That is no leap of logic. It is blindingly obvious.

    • I’m sure the majority of London’s commuters have monthly tickets they’ve already paid for. Financially, it doesn’t make a difference if their tickets are checked or not.

  9. Hard is it for me to listen/ fallow the automation most times. I’d always rather listen to a less skilled professional than an automative scholar .

    • That is an excellent example of where automation probably isn’t suited. Teaching requires getting into the mind of the learner and guiding them through to understanding, which is primarily a human skill. Those are the kind of jobs that I suggested we should avoid automating.

  10. Reblogged this on PM4L1FE and commented:
    Interesting take on work and automation.

  11. Pingback: UK: Thoughts on The Tube and Automation | Peak Jobs

  12. kennethkennethallisonallison

    Reblogged this on kennysgarden.

  13. This is really interesting. I’m one of those who’d rather stay at home today and ponder the tube strike than go out into the craziness. I’m not quite sure where I stand on automating the tube, though the DLR is certainly efficient and effective.

  14. Automation requires equipment. Equipment requires capital. Capital requires loans. Loans require interest. Your fares, instead of paying people’s wages are used to pay interest on those loans. The interest goes into the pockets of the banks giving them more and more power to control our lives. Money that goes into the pockets of workers is recycled.

    Until we have a system where capital comes from the people and profits go back to the people, I think automation is largely a bad thing.

    This is from someone who worked in computing for most of their life.

  15. Couldnt agree more. Ian

  16. It is short sighted for anyone to think that the tube will not go the way of the DLR eventually and be able to be operated completely by machine. It is going to lead to a lot more bad blood though before everyone on the inside accepts that.

    Visit New Gen Journo for unbiased opinions on everything

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