Your greatest competition in a few decades probably will not be human. Instead, job applicants will most likely have to compete with tireless and efficient robots, which are aggressively transforming the labour force. Image: ‘Night Cleaning’ by Artist Tom Estes at BIG DEAL in London.
In the last few decades there have been enormous technical advances in robotics. Does the reason and method of creation influence their kinship? Robots are learning to think for themselves, some are even developing their own private language. Is it possible that these new life forms will evolve to be smarter and more capable than us? From our telephones to our vacuum cleaners to our cars, we have robots that live and work beside us. And now we’re designing them to think for themselves, giving them the power to learn to move on their own. We are currently undergoing a transition period, much like the Industrial Revolution, where workers shifted from farms to factories.
That robots, automation, and software can replace people might seem obvious to anyone who’s worked in automotive manufacturing or as a travel agent. Anecdotal evidence that digital technologies threaten jobs is, of course, everywhere. Robots and advanced automation have been common in many types of manufacturing for decades. A less dramatic change, but one with a potentially far larger impact on employment, is taking place in clerical work and professional services. Technologies like the Web, artificial intelligence, big data, and improved analytics—all made possible by the ever increasing availability of cheap computing power and storage capacity—are automating many routine tasks. Countless traditional white-collar jobs, such as many in the post office and in customer service, have disappeared.
Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his collaborator and coauthor Andrew McAfee have been arguing that impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. So increasingly, robots are taking over more and more jobs. But now is a particularly appropriate time to think about this question. Because guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us. In this new generation of employment, workers will not be able to compete against machines but instead will have to find a way to work alongside them.
Until a decade ago, the share of total national income going to workers was pretty stable at around 70 percent, while the share going to capital—mainly corporate profits and returns on financial investments—made up the other 30 percent. More recently, though, those shares have started to change. Slowly but steadily, labor’s share of total national income has gone down, while the share going to capital owners has gone up. The most obvious effect of this is the skyrocketing wealth of the top 1 percent, due mostly to huge increases in capital gains and investment income.
This is a grim prediction. Economist Paul Krugman recently remarked that our long-standing belief in skills and education as the keys to financial success may well be outdated. In a blog post titled “Rise of the Robots,” he reviewed some recent economic data and predicted that we’re entering an era where the prime cause of income inequality will be something else entirely: capital vs. labor. Over the last century many labor saving devices were introduced to reduce our workloads, and give us more leisure time. But that is not the way it has panned out. Labor reducing devices may have freed us from many of the drudgeries of housework but it has only freed us to work more hours as a means to increase the power and profits of the ownership classes. In simple terms, if owners of capital are capturing an increasing fraction of national income, then that capital needs to be shared more widely if we want to maintain a middle-class society.
‘Night Cleaning’ Live Art Performance by Artist Tom Estes
So are we in the midst of a revolution so insidious we can’t even see it? Are we constructing our robots that will replace us in evolution? Whatever the answer—and it might turn out to be something we can’t even imagine right now—it’s time to start thinking about our automated future in earnest. The history of mass economic displacement isn’t encouraging—it encouraged the rise of fascism in the ’20s and Nazis in the ’30s. Recent high levels of unemployment in Greece and Italy have already produced rioting in the streets and larger followings for right-wing populist parties. And that’s after only a few years of misery.
However, every decade brings us a new generation of artists ready to understand changes in the world and to present them as reflections in a contemporary format. A new performance work ‘Night Cleaning’ by Artist Tom Estes that was staged at BIG DEAL during Frieze Art Week in London revolves around the contemporary revolution in robotic technology and artificial intelligence. The work taps into the humor and the horror of the golem stories that illustrate unknown parameters and the ancient question of unlocking knowledge and the creation that goes with it.
With its roots in the Bible, the word ‘golem’ denotes an “unshapen form” of a human being (Psalm 139:16) and is also known as the bringing to life of something that was initially not alive before, as revolving around the animation of an inanimate statue. In Jewish folklore, a golem (goh-ləm; Hebrew: גולם) is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter. The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing. The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. There are many tales differing on how the Golem was brought to life and afterwards controlled.
‘Night Cleaning’ by Artist Tom Estes at BIG DEAL in London
The Expressionist film from the1920’s Der Golem is a silent German classic and tells the story of a Jewish rabbi in 16th-century Prague, who creates a giant creature from clay, called the Golem, and using sorcery, brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. An unusual difference in both stories lays in the reasons as to why the protagonists create a golem. Rabbi Leib does so because he told to and the creation comes to life because of religious magic — magic that is not revealed in the story. Leib faithfully does what is told him, while Frankenstein pursues humanistic values of unlimited knowledge.
When I see these old attempts at what amounted to a horror film back in the day, the monstrosities are stark, and disconcerting but hardly terrifying by comparison with today’s CGI effects. However they still manage to terrify their victims in an almost comical, stylized way. The Golem is a marvelous film, that together with Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be considered examples of early film at its very best. There is an ageless quality to them that transcends the hoary and often corny plots and acting. So too it is, I contend, with Estes’ performance. Horror? Hardly. But, the settling starkness and darkness with which it is twisted with its surroundings are still eerie and provoking.
The Golem is clearly the ancestor of the Frankenstein monster. Like Frankenstein, The Golem is an extremely potent form of tapping into our dream states and the horror of the irrational and unknown, and is a metaphor for humanity’s quest for creation. However the fundamental difference is that the Golem coming to life relies on the unknown powers of God while he Frankenstein Monster relies on man-made intellect. In film adaptation of The Golem story, the Rabbi uses sorcery (with Gods blessing) to bring the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. Dr. Frankenstein pursues humanistic values and systematic scientific research but his creation seems to stem from his own desires for unlimited knowledge.
Within the film the menace or monster of Frankenstein is related to a corruption of technology and may be regarded as directly going against God. So Estes’ performance also references the theme found in Dr. Faustus in which, like Frankenstein, he is so blindly ambitious for knowledge regardless of the consequences. Horror films developed out of a number of sources: folktales with devil characters, witchcraft, fables, myths, ghost stories. Considered that there are many works of literature that use this motif and the largest usage is found in the Jewish literary tradition which itself knows many diverse variations of the golem legend. Der golem is explicitly given life by God, whereas Shelley’s golem is electrocuted into this world. Singer’s version of the golem myth entails religious magic, whereas Shelley shocked the world with her scientific approach to a story — that makes it even more impossibly frightening. On an interesting sidetrack lays Harry Mulisch modern version of the golem titled De Procedure (The Procedure, 1998). Mulisch’s novel entails two golems, one in the third ‘act’ (chapter) in which the narrator relates the myth of the golem (Prague in the 16th century) according to the Jewish myth of the golem, apart from the fact that this golem is female. In the rest of the novel, the contemporary protagonist himself creates a golem. In his novel, Mulisch incorporates both the mythical and the modern (Frankenstein-like) golem. All of which raises questions as to what the thematic overlap between these versions are and what the startling differences are in both Singer’s golem and Shelley’s.
This is the kind of thing found frequently in literature but when I started looking for answers from mainstream economists, it turned out there wasn’t much to choose from. And film adaptations have always been literary studies’ unwanted offspring. An inbred, unoriginal variety of something that had already existed. So what do we do over the next few decades as robots become steadily more capable and steadily begin taking away all our jobs? This is not something that will happen overnight. It will happen slowly, as machines grow increasingly capable. We have already seen it in factories, where robots do work that used to be done by semiskilled assembly line workers. In a decade, driverless cars will start to put taxi hacks and truck drivers out of a job. And while it’s easy to believe that some jobs can never be done by machines—do the elderly really want to be tended by robots?—that may not be true. Nearly 50 years ago, when MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created a therapy simulation program named Eliza, he was astonished to discover just how addictive it was. Even though Eliza was almost laughably crude, it was endlessly patient and seemed interested in your problems. People liked talking to Eliza.
So will the human species take the course of its own future evolution into its own hands? One possibility is merging the human mind with artificial intelligence and the body with advances in robotics. Will Homo sapiens evolve into Homo cyberneticus? Scientist in Japan believe the future lies in combining humans and robots, and are already building robot suits for people to wear, which gives them superhuman strength. Will we choose to merge with the machines, combining the best of our world with the best of theirs?
‘Night Cleaning’ by Artist Tom Estes at BIG DEAL in London
Two centuries ago this year, 64 men were brought to trial in York, England. Their crime? They were skilled weavers who fought back against the rising tide of power looms they feared would put them out of work. The Luddites spent two years burning mills and destroying factory machinery, and the British government was not amused. Of the 64 men charged in 1813, 25 were transported to Australia and 17 were led to the gallows.
Since then, Luddite has become a derisive term for anyone afraid of new technology. After all, the weavers turned out to be wrong. Power looms put them out of work, but in the long run automation made the entire workforce more productive. Everyone still had jobs—just different ones. Some ran the new power looms, others found work no one could have imagined just a few decades before, in steel mills, automobile factories, and railroad lines. In the end, this produced wealth for everyone, because, after all, someone still had to make, run, and maintain the machines. But that was then. During the Industrial Revolution, machines were limited to performing physical tasks. The Digital Revolution is different because computers can perform cognitive tasks too, and that means machines will eventually be able to run themselves. When that happens, they won’t just put individuals out of work temporarily. Entire classes of workers will be out of work permanently. In other words, the Luddites weren’t wrong. They were just 200 years too early.