Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Robots, Candidates, and Bartenders

           One of the most striking things about the upcoming presidential election is how both candidates appear to be gazing in the rear view mirror rather than anticipating the problems barreling down the pike.

            That being said, it’s always hard to distinguish between what’s for voter consumption and what each candidate actually believes. Mr. Trump, in particular, is a master at blurring the lines between wishful thinking and bald reality.

            Consider his proposed wall and his conviction that Mexico will pay for its construction. My advice for him is to attend the Irish Rep’s upcoming production of Finian’s Rainbow; perhaps the Leprechaun will throw him a few wishes!

            However, it’s Mr. Trump’s pandering to the working class that is most troubling. His promise to bring back coal mining to West Virginia and other states is blatantly dishonest.
            Coal is dead! Not only is it one of the worst pollutants, there are now so many more economical and cleaner energy sources available. But even if the mines were to be reopened, the only way to make them profitable would be through automation - with a minimum amount of actual miners’ jobs.

            Secretary Clinton does have a plan to rescue the old coalmining communities.  It includes attracting high tech and biochemical industries, and retraining the miners to work in the new plants.

            But it’s too little – and far too late. The cost would be huge and there’s scant hope of an inert congress passing what amounts to an Appalachian Marshall Plan. It would appear that the Invasion of Iraq – which both candidates originally supported – was the last great American initiative.

            Beyond overuse of twitter and emails neither candidate seems to be aware of the effect digital technology is having on the economy. Even in the niche market of music so many people who once made decent livings are abandoning this once profitable business. 

What happened? Digital technology changed the mode of delivery, making record stores obsolete; piracy became rampant, and of late consumers have decided that it makes more sense to rent thousands of songs for $10 a month rather than buy a CD for the same price.

            It’s hardly the worst example though, for most musicians and music biz workers tend to be self-motivated; many have already adapted and are creating new jobs for themselves.

            Not so, miners! It’s a big leap from chipping away at a coal face hundreds of feet under the earth to grappling with an Excel spread sheet in a semi-automated office.

            It’s the lack of imagination from both candidates that troubles me most. For the real threat – industrial robotics - will undoubtedly strike in the coming years and lead to much redundancy and long term unemployment.

            You don’t have to be a weatherman to see this tsunami on the horizon. Isaac Azimov was predicting it back in the 1950’s.

            I recently re-read his Three Laws of Robotics. As ever, this Brooklyn born writer/savant was on the money – apart from one small detail; his robots had designs on world domination, ours merely want our jobs.

            What will we do in this brave new world that’s darkening our horizon? Take the A train out to Rockaway every morning and watch the sunrise? But who’ll pay the rent and cable?

            Uber won’t want us because the damned robots will come with built in GPS. And do you really think that the corporate whizzes at Amazon will prefer a whining human over a silent machine that can cheerfully pack boxes until the cows come home?

            So maybe the Donald and the Hillary know exactly what they’re doing – deal with the dead and dull past rather than confront the uncomfortable future. Most of us will never even meet a miner, let alone attempt to retrain him for a career in biogenetics. And in the end, they say that a discouraged Azimov abandoned science fiction for the certainties of Shakespeare.

            You have to wonder though, given the seeming intractability of future problems, why would either of these candidates wish to be president?

            Ah well, that’s their problem. Time for the pub; at least I’ll never have to worry about a robot replacing my favorite bartender. Or will I?

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