08/21/2014 02:33 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014

Robots Are People, Too

"This is an economic revolution," a new online video says about automation. The premise of "Humans Need Not Apply" is that human work will soon be all but obsolete.

"You may think we've been here before, but we haven't," says CGP Grey, the video's creator. "This time is different."

The video has gone viral, with nearly 2 million YouTube views in one week. But is it true?

Joshua Gans of "Digitopoly" is skeptical and offers some cautionary thoughts. So does the Econospeak blog, which addresses the issue of economic agency and observes that

"... the alleged automaton, is an illusion -- at worst a hoax -- that distracts from the scale of human intervention required make the automaton's motion appear autonomous. The more remotely human intervention can take place, the more effective is the illusion."

By contrast, David Atkins gave the video two thumbs up in a post whose title flatly proclaimed that "This is the future. It doesn't include jobs for humans." Wrote Atkins:

"This is real, and it is happening. A lot of people on both sides of the aisle don't want to believe it's true, for their own ideological reasons."

But is it true? There's a simple answer to that question: We don't know.

A Change Is Coming

It seems unlikely that there will be no jobs at all. But the world will certainly change.

The Grey video appears to draw heavily on the work of Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, with Oxford University's Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology and Department of Engineering Science. Frey and Osborne concluded last year that 47 percent of current US jobs were vulnerable to automation.

As we noted at the time, Frey and Osborne noted surprisingly rapid developments in automation, then assessed jobs based on the level of "creative intelligence," "social intelligence," dexterity, and other skills in which humans currently have the advantage.

Frey and Osborne conclude that, in the first wave of automation, "most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are likely to be substituted by computer capital."

The authors add that, "more surprisingly," service, sales, and construction jobs will be increasingly vulnerable to automation. They concluded that "generalist occupations requiring knowledge of human heuristics, and specialist occupations involving the development of novel ideas and artifacts, are the least susceptible to computerisation." That heterodox category includes CEOs, mathematicians, and poets.

In other words: Yes, a lot of people will lose their jobs. But it's wrong to say "we've never been here before." The Industrial Revolution led to a wrenching transformation of the workforce. The de-agriculturalization of the United States changed us from a rural society of independent farmers to an urban society of workers and job-seekers. Earlier periods saw us transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, and from nomads to settlement dwellers.

Who Decides?

The right question is not, "Will transformation happen?" The right question is, "Will we manage transformation wisely and fairly?"

While the nature of that transformation is still unknown, here's what we do know: Atkins writes that "The future will belong to the political faction that can anticipate and deal with the inevitability of this transition."

If you substitute the word "economic" for "political," you're left with a statement that's almost certainly true. The fight for the future is well underway, and the majority is losing. For evidence, you need look no further than CGP Grey's list of reference books, which includes three works: "Race Against the Machine," a summary of studies like Frey's and Osborne's; a book which tells its readers "how to survive the coming economic collapse and be happy"; and, tellingly, "Average Is Over" by economist Tyler Cowen.

We've dealt with Cowen and his work before. Whether intentionally or not, Cowen is an aggressive propagandist for a brutal libertarian future in which the brilliant and self-motivated (as he sees them) will become wealthier and more powerful than ever, while the rest of society (which Cowen pegs at 85 percent of the population) becomes a permanent underclass, dwelling in shantytowns and struggling to survive.

Cowen argues that "the wealthy class will ... be larger over time" and "will have increasing influence. It is their values that will shape public discourse."

CGP Grey's video demonstrates that the wealthy class is already shaping public discourse. Grey may be completely unaware of this influence, but it's there nonetheless, and it is that influence which we must consciously change and resist.

A Democratic Future

How should we deal with change? First, we must democratize the planning process. Last year the White House announced the formation of "the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee '2.0,'" which it describes as "part of a continuing effort to maintain U.S. leadership in the emerging technologies that will create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance America's global competitiveness."

There is only one labor representative on the committee, as compared to eleven corporate CEOs. That needs to change. Student and community leaders must also be added to the list of "industry, academia, and government" which the President said "must work in partnership to revitalize our manufacturing sector."

A rational and democratized planning process would look something like this:
  1. Include all segments of society in the conversation, not just corporate interests or those who reflect elite values.
  2. Avoid becoming so engaged in hypothetical future events that we ignore the crisis right in front of us. Today's unemployment emergency involves cyclical, not structural, unemployment. We need to have one debate about our current dilemma, and another about the needs of the future. Let's not confuse the two, as the "structural employment" conservatives would have us do.
  3. Act, not as Luddites or technophobes, but as wise stewards of our own future - a future which must include a healthy middle class, as well as corporate executives and social or digital engineers.
  4. Target government resources toward technology that is job-producing, as well as wealth-producing. Clean-energy technology is an excellent example of that. The President's first manufacturing committee had excellent ideas for "green tech," which produces well-paying and hard-to-automate jobs retrofitting homes and commercial buildings across the country.
  5. Explore income alternatives to ensure that every working American can earn a living wage during this period of displacement. This includes a higher minimum wage, as well as more innovative ideas like a guaranteed minimum income.
  6. Learn from the errors of globalization. This time we should remember to distinguish the inevitable from the merely possible, and to consider all the alternatives before embarking on a course of action.

Robots: They're Only Human

As we wrote in response to Frey and Osborne: Automation is not a tidal wave, sweeping everything in its path. It's a process which we can shape and direct toward the best possible outcome for all the affected parties. That includes all of us, so we all deserve a place at the table.

Every revolution -- whether technological, political, or economic -- is a moment when human values are either reaffirmed or denied. "This time is different," says CGP Grey. But here's the thing: It's always different. Humanity has always faced an uncertain future, and we've lived through periods of wrenching transformation before.

So far the automation process has been guided almost exclusively by corporate interests. Deliberate choices have been masked by the false and ideological assertion that technological development is guided by implacable, invisible forces. That's not true. For the moment, at least, robots are a human artifact. We may not be able to stop the automation wave, but we can help guide it -- and we can respond to it in wise, humane ways.

Technology is not an alien force. It's the product of human action, human culture, and human choices. When we create our future, we recreate ourselves. That's the real task before us now. As social critic John Ruskin said during the Industrial Revolution: "You can either make a tool of the creature, or a man. You cannot do both."

Portions of this commentary were adapted from "The Robots are Coming - Now What?"