The Precariat squared

I have written, several times before about the precariat (which is sometimes defined as a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare). The main problem of the precariat is the very precariousness (hence the term) of its day-to-day and week-to-week socio-economic security. The precariat is real. Just a year ago, the CBC reported that “The number of Canadians who are $200 or less away from financial insolvency at month-end has jumped to 46 per cent .. [and] … 31 per cent of Canadians say they don’t make enough to cover their bills and debt payments.” 

I do not believe the numbers are declining. I suspect that the Trudeau-Freeland-Morneau regime has made things worse in the intervening year.

My personal belief is that Canadian Conservatives must make the cause of the precariat their own:

  • First, for the sake of the country which cannot afford to allow a disaffected underclass to grow and grow, and
  • Second, for the sake of the Conservative Party which needs the votes of “blue-collar conservatives,” (second link, above) many of whom live in the suburbs around e.g. Greater Vancouver and, especially around the Greater Toronto Area.

Now I see a somewhat dated (2017) but still frightening article (excerpted from his recent book Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow) by the noted Israeli historian and author Professor Yuval Noah Harari. He says that “The most important question in 21st-century economics may well be: What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?” He calls these “superfluous people” the “useless class,” which may make them something like a Precariat² I suppose, a group with neither prospects nor purpose.

The threats (the plural matters) posed by AI have been addressed, again and again, by Yuval_Noah_Harari_cropped_101248849_00e922df-4bcd-4a86-b83d-38b7e9294b91people much smarter than I, including Professor Harari (⇐) and the late, great Stephen Hawking (⇒), and I’m not going to try to repeat what they said, except to quote Dr Harari when he says that “The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking … [and] … The current scientific answer to this pipe dream can be summarized in three simple principles:

  • Organisms are algorithms. Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution;
  • Algorithmic calculations are not affected by the materials from which the calculator is built. Whether an abacus is made of wood, iron or plastic, two beads plus two beads equals four beads; and
  • Hence, there is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass. As long as the calculations remain valid, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon or silicon?

In other words, there is no scientific reason why machines (algorithms) cannot do (almost) all human “work,” including conceiving or, designing, building and maintaining new, and better, machines.

What will become of us?

Well, in the long term Yuval Noah Harari (and others) posit that the machines may make it possible for humans to have a life of unparalleled ease, comfort, leisure and creativity, unburdened by the need to do anything other than to think. I’m not going to discuss that, Lao Tzu, Senneca, Thomas Hobbes and Oscar Wilde all left us with some ideas about a life of leisure …

… but my concern is with the next 50 to 100 years.

I assume that the rise of AI is both inevitable and, generally, to be welcomed. But how to cope? We see some of the impacts already …

… we are almost all familiar with self-checkout lanes and soon they will easier, you will load your cart and walk out, just scanning your phone or a credit card ~ your basket of goods will have been carefully (and very accurately) scanned and the algorithm will have calculated all discounts and sale prices.

But it’s not just retail …

… many, many warehouses have already been nearly fully automated, thousands and hundreds of thousands of low-skilled but well-paid jobs have disappeared. And more will follow when e.g. bus and taxi drivers and even oceangoing ship’s crews are replaced …

… and the changes are not confined to low-skill occupations, either …

… robotic waiters are already in service, robotic health care assistants are under test …

… as are robotic surgical assistants who can do some very delicate work with much greater precisions and accuracy than can any human. How soon before millions of nurses and doctors have been replaced by robots? Do you think it’s far-fetched? I don’t.

The policy question is: what do we do with (for) the tens of millions of Canadians (billions, worldwide) who lose good jobs in the next decade or two or three? Is retraining the answer? Maybe not, because as Professor Harari says, “it is unclear whether 40-year-old cashiers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves” in a new, AI dominated world.

Maybe it is time for Conservatives to revisit some “big ideas like a guaranteed annual income or negative income tax in order to start preparing the way for the socio-economic changes that seem, to many, including me, to be inevitable. may it is also time to remind people that there are some jobs that humans perform better than algorithms and encouraging people to seek education and training for those jobs. These are, in the near and mid-term, occupations in which corporations will be unlikely to make the necessary investment to automate within the next 20 to 35 years. In the near term, it seems to me, that includes, at the high end, robot and AI conception and design and, at the lower ends, robot and AI programming and maintenance:

Our national and Conservative aim should be, simultaneously, to reduce the size of the existing precariat and to prevent the emergence of Professor Harari’s useless class.

3 thoughts on “The Precariat squared

  1. The CPC must learn to see the differance between union workers and union leadership. By appealing to union workers and leaving the anti-union rhetoric behind, they can show that they can help produce jobs and that will appeal to the workers.
    Automation makes assumption that the supply chain will be perfect, but it never is and tagging things like individual potato’s becomes very cost inefficient.

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