The Robots Aren’t Coming. 
They’re Already Here.

Developments in automation and data exchange are launching us into what some are calling the fourth industrial revolution. From retail to transport, farming, medicine and of course manufacturing, there are few areas of employment and the economy that will remain unaffected.

Supermarket self-serve checkouts. By Kgbo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Supermarket self-serve checkouts.
By Kgbo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Take a look and you can see the beginnings all around: the banks of auto checkouts in Coles and Woolworths that allow you to buy mushrooms at onion prices; the app that your Uber or Foodora driver uses to raise your convenience level past eleven; that handy all-singing all-dancing surveillance device we still call a “phone”. Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are already part of our lives. Forget about what might happen in five years time and start paying attention to what’s going on right now.

Previous industrial revolutions (driven by the technologies of steam, electricity and electronics) have all involved large-scale disruptions to economies, largely through manufacturing advances and the resulting effect on the division of labour. There’s no reason to believe that this time is going to be different.

Large scale job displacement

A CSIRO report from 2016 found that over 40 per cent of current Australian jobs will be able to be done by robots in 20 years time.  A 2014 study published in the Oxford Handbook of Skills and Training estimated that “technology could replace workers for 80 per cent of current jobs.” It’s clear that we can’t ignore the effects of automation and AI on the economy, but are robots going to take all our jobs?

Economist Jim Stanford, who sat down with Green Agenda recently to talk about the future of work, points out that, historically, jobs lost to technology have largely been offset by newly created jobs, and that we can probably expect the same again.

“There’s people doing things that we never even dreamed that they would be doing 10 or 20 years ago,” he says, “because the technology wasn’t there to allow it to happen. So there are going to be new jobs and new tasks, new occupations, new services, new products that arise, that we’re going to end up hiring people to do.”

Futurist Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Machines, agrees that the economy has tended to adapt over time. Talking to Wired recently, he pointed out “in the 1800s, 80 per cent of the U.S. labour force worked on farms. Today it’s 2 per cent.” However, he thinks this time it’s going to be different, because of “the exponential increase in computing power… the new ability of machines to learn and adapt… (and) the ubiquity of this technology.”

For Ford and others, like engineer/entrepreneur/Donald Trump’s Strategic & Policy Forum member Elon Musk, this becomes an argument for a universal basic income (UBI). This concept has been generating a lot of discussion. Finland is currently running a trial among 2,000 unemployed people, “to see whether providing a basic income will make the unemployed more eager to go into short-term jobs,” writes Maija Unkuri for the BBC. The unemployed people taking part will receive payments whether or not they fill in forms or look for work or even get a job.

Academic Ben Spies-Butcher recently highlighted that coupled with affluence testing, such as in the way that Australian aged pension and family payments system works, a basic income could “directly address the problem of people falling through the cracks of a complex welfare system.” Sociologist Eva Cox recently advocated approaching a UBI through a feminist prism:

“A UBI could increase recognition of social well-being and increase cohesion by recognising the value of time used in unpaid work contributions… Given the gender income differences already in place, from a feminist viewpoint, a UBI would adjust most existing gender based income differentials.”

What would you do if your income were taken care of?Jim Stanford agrees with the starting principle of a basic income – “that people should be entitled to a certain standard of living as a right of citizenship, or by virtue of being a member of our community” – but he doesn’t see it as a magic bullet to solve the challenges we’re facing. He sees huge political barriers, particularly in terms of who is going to pay for it – employers are unlikely to want to sacrifice profit margins – and he can’t see work being replaced as the “driving force of economic activity.” Stanford points out that as it stands the displacement of jobs will exert “downward pressure on incomes and bargaining power” for workers and that employers will exploit this to get cheap labour for meaningless tasks:

“Walk out here on Pitt Street today at lunch in downtown Sydney, and you’ll see 5 to 10 people who are being paid to stand around holding signs, saying: Buy your Uggs here. Get a massage there. That’s about as menial, useless, and unproductive a job as you can imagine, hiring a living and breathing human being to hold a sign in the middle of a crowded sidewalk.”

Neither option is particularly appealing: large scale unemployment because machines can perform roles cheaper than humans, or more and more people pushed into precarious, low-paying and unfulfilling jobs – what anarchist author Dave Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.”

Which future are we going to see? 

The potential for mass scale automation underpins Jacobin Editor Peter Frase’s 2016 book Four Futures – Life After Capitalism (which is itself an extension of this essay from 2011). More a thought experiment than a predictive work, Frase takes 100 per cent automation as a given then sets up two sets of variables: whether we solve the energy crisis or not; then whether we retain a largely hierarchical system of distributing wealth and capital, or we move towards one that is more equitable.

It’s only really Frase’s ultimate utopia of abundance and egalitarianism (he calls it “communism”) where a complete re-evaluation of work as a source of meaning needs to occur. In a way it’s the only future where we have the luxury to consider it. His socialism (scarcity and egalitarianism) necessitates rationing and sacrifice for the greater good. While for many of us, work is a crucial part of who we are and how we place ourselves in society, Frase sees the idea of transcending work as almost a function of our existence: 

“It is important to keep the lights on, and sometimes that takes work – but keeping the lights on is not what makes us human. It is merely a necessity that we can and must transcend if we are to be truly free. Freedom begins where work ends – the realm of freedom is after hours, on the weekend, on vacation, and not at work. And that remains true whether you work for a capitalist boss or a worker-owned cooperative. The space of work is still the realm of necessity and not of freedom.”

Jim Stanford’s concern is more with the here and now, how we’ve got to this point and the potential turning points towards a better future for workers. He highlights that the way productivity gains are distributed has changed in the past 30 years. Generally, productivity gains present us with two immediate choices: do we want to work less, or do we want to have a higher material standard of living? Human beings have generally said yes to both of those things – more consumption and more leisure time, including through purchasing private health and education.

However, for the past 30 years under the neo-liberal economic framework, workers have largely ceased to see those benefits from productivity gains. All of the progress in Australia – a working week from 48 to 40 hours, annual leave, etc. – was in place before the 80s. Stanford says the lack of recent productivity gains flowing to workers is “not because people don’t appreciate time off anymore, but because they don’t have the political and economic power to demand and win it anymore, like they did in the post-war era.”

In the 80s Republican Ronald Reagan introduced ‘trickle down economics’ to the United States. In the United Kingdom, the governments of Margaret Thatcher unwound the post-war consensus of a welfare state, national ownership and tightly regulated economy, at the same time doubling the poverty rate and marginalising the union movement.  In Australia, however, union leaders walked hand in hand down the path to neoliberalism with Australian Labor Party (ALP) leaders Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. In all three economies, productivity gains have to a significant degree stopped flowing to workers (to a lesser degree in Australia than the US and UK because of the cohesion between the government and the union movement) and have instead seen capital sky-rocketing into the hands of fewer and fewer people, with accompanying increases in income inequality, job insecurity and a lack of housing affordability.

Unionist Louise Tarrant in a paper for the Green Institute describes this era as tearing up the post-war social contract, with people becoming “commodities in the marketplace,” as neoliberal governments aggressively pursued

“Deregulation – particularly of labour, environment, trade and finance laws… De-taxation… Privatisation… De-collectivisation – breaking unions and undermining other advocacy organisations; De-politicisation of the public…, and the Politicisation of business.”

You don’t have to look far to see how far Australia is down this path. Just for starters there’s the permeation of money across politics, the privatisation agenda of past Labor state governments, and the current Liberal & National (LNP) Coalition government’s obsession with defunding organisations that engage in advocacy. As Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said in her dissenting report into the Australian Senate Inquiry into the Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns:

“Over the last three decades the scale of spending in Australian elections has sky-rocketed, with both major parties engaging in a funding arms race that has seen a rapid increase in the amount of money spent in Australian federal and state elections. The spending increase has outstripped the availability of public funding, and thus private donations to major political parties have increased markedly, particularly from business and lobby groups who are most affected by government legislation.”

5279676030_cefc4f85f4_bPerhaps the real failure of the ALP and union movement since the transformative Prices and Income Accord in 1983 has been an inability to envisage or articulate an Australian economy that empowers working people. Instead they have overseen the gradual erosion of the rights and conditions of working Australians. Yes, the ALP have opposed incursions into workers rights by LNP Coalition governments, but when in government they have refused to fully unwind measures that have weakened people’s power in workplaces. As Simon Copland pointed out in Jacobin last year, even after the ALP won the 2007 Federal election on the back of mass union mobilisation in the Your Rights at Work Campaign, the “resulting legislation didn’t even return workers to a pre-Howard environment. The right to strike, in particular, remained curtailed.” With union membership at record lows and the ALP refusing to oppose penalty rate cuts in election campaigns (though they’re happy to try and legislate from Opposition) the signs are clear that the transformation to a fairer Australian economy is unlikely to come from the current crop of personal-career-driven leaders of the traditional centre-left.

This decline in social and economic power for working people mean that Frase’s other two futures may likely seem more accessible and real to us than socialism or communism. It’s important to see Frase’s ‘futures’ not as eventual boxes for humanity to find ourselves in, but as points on a continuum that we perpetually either move towards or away from.

The first, where we transition to a renewable economy without overcoming hierarchical systems of wealth and power distribution, Frase calls Rentism. For someone like me, earning around the average full-time wage, this is a very familiar world. I have access to pretty much everything I want and need – food, somewhere to live, entertainment and leisure activities – but I don’t actually own anything. I will probably have to rent my entire life, always worried I’ll be evicted at a landlord’s whim. Technological advancements mean I can access music, films, reading materials and other forms of entertainment without stepping out of my (rented) doorway, but by and large if I stop paying a series of monthly fees – to Spotify, Netflix, my internet and mobile phone providers, the subscriptions to New Scientist and the Guardian Weekly – I lose access instantly. 

binary-503598_1280Strict intellectual property laws are the vanguard of a rentist future. Imagine that in every renewable energy-powered household there is a device like Star Trek’s replicator – call it a 3D printer or fabricator if you want – larger versions in every community able to recycle materials and almost anything anyone could possibly need. But to make that new pair of school shoes, or access the medicine your aunt needs, you need to pay the fee to the person who holds licence, patent, design or copyright. The current state of the music, film and book industry indicate heavily in this direction. The actual cost of reproducing creative works is now zero, as many Australian viewers of Game of Thrones will attest. Services like Spotify rely on algorithms rather than humans to do the work. Where television shows once had to produce multiple seasons before they began to turn a profit, modern distribution and syndication methods mean that content producers, particularly in the United States, are now often making money before the show begins playing/streaming.

As long as you have a reasonably stable income, this kind of reality isn’t too bad. Of course, we don’t currently live in a post-scarcity world, and the lifestyles of rich countries and elites in poorer ones have been built on the back of dispossession, colonisation, and irreversible damage to the climate and environment.

On this, Frase says “the key question surrounding climate change is not whether climate change is occurring, but rather who will survive the change”, bringing us to the fourth future: exterminism. In his original essay Frase introduces this as “communism for the few”, indicative of the way that our elites live now. Money has no meaning for the super-wealthy, anything they want they can have. If we can’t overcome the environmental crisis or find ways to effectively redistribute power and wealth, large scale automation will make the world’s poor largely superfluous to requirements. Frase is describing a potential future, but he could very well be describing countries like Australia, Israel or the United States:

“…political factions fight over the diminishing bounty of damaged eco-systems. Faced with this bleak reality, many of the rich – which, in global terms, includes many workers in the rich countries as well – have resigned themselves to barricading themselves into their fortresses, to be protected by unmanned drones and private military contractors.”


As much as headlines and Hollywood want robots to be the problem, the question really is who owns them and how they are used. Technology is not a neutral force. If we look at some of the technology driving the “gig” economy, apps like Uber and Foodora were developed specifically in order to extract maximum labour from people while undermining the minimum wage and labour standards. As the University of Sydney’s Joellen Riley notes, Uber contacts allow Uber to “change its own percentage commission from fares at any time, without notice… change any term of the contract, at any time, without notice…. and deactivate a driver’s access to the app without notice.”

In a number of libraries in the United States, automated software is used to purge low-popularity titles. East Lake County Library branch supervisor George Dore was suspended in December 2016 because of his role in gaming the system, creating a fictional patron called Chuck Finley and using the account to check out 2361 books over nine months to save them from the purge.  As Cory Doctorow wrote in an article on the issue:

“The problem here isn’t the collection of data: it’s the blind adherence to data over human judgment, the use of data as a shackle rather than a tool.”

PostcapitalismPaul Mason, journalist and author of Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (who also spoke to Green Agenda recently) believes that due to the advent of information technology, the end of capitalism has already begun. This is because of three factors: automation has reduced the need for work, and will continue doing so; the abundance of information and ability to replicate it for no cost means the markets are unable “to form prices correctly”; plus, collaborative production (e.g. Wikipedia) is undermining traditional markets and hierarchies. Mason sees a variety of shocks to the system: energy depletion, climate change, ageing populations and migration “altering the dynamics of capitalism and making it unworkable in the long-term.”

These turning points coincide with growing awareness of the failure of neoliberalism to deliver what it promised – that creating a business friendly environment would see wealth and benefits trickle down proportionally to everybody else – and that instead we’ve seen growing inequality coupled with increased disillusionment. The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor, writing about Brexit, Trump and Pauline Hanson, highlights that even in Australia “the minimum wage has declined… the value of unemployment benefits has also plummeted” and that the suite of social policies which mean Australia is more equitable than the UK or US has been “unravelling and there are those who would like to unpick it further.” She argues that while Tony Abbott wants the Liberal part to be more “right wing” to represent disaffected voters:

“Trumps policies had little ideological consistency. His appeal was more basic – voters were angry at a system from which they feel excluded and saw Trump as different, not politics-as-usual, someone who ‘heard their concerns. Clinton’s Democrat rival Bernie Sanders was popular in many of the same so-called ‘rustbelt’ constituencies that delivered Trump the White House.”

Speaking at Sydney University recently, Paul Mason described Trump as being a “break with neo-liberalism,” with his nationalist policies threatening to kill off globalisation and spark a kind of global neo-Feudalism.

So what are we waiting for? 

After WWI Rosa Luxemburg said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” Nearly a century later we may be looking at a similar choice. We could create a truly global community, where machines are used for the benefit of all, or, as Sydney’s Andy Mason writes: “we face a bleak future in which the rich leave us to rot while they destroy the planet, merge their rapacious consciousness with super-intelligent AI, and sail away to colonise Mars.”

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, in his review of Postcapitalism in The Monthly, introduces Paul Mason’s blueprint for a better future as a set of policies that:

“either set course directly against the present economic and political orthodoxy, or are designed to enhance and support economic undercurrents or niche trends that are already gathering pace within the faltering structures of the existing order.”

Mason calls it Project Zero, because its aims are a transition to a zero carbon system of energy, mass scale automation, “goods and services with zero marginal costs”, and reducing the amount of time that we work as much as possible. Such as future would closely resemble Peter Frase’s post-scarcity egalitarian communist utopia, representing almost an evolution of humanity away from work as a requirement of survival or existence.

To get there, according to Greek Economist Yanis Varoufakis, the left need to combine collective action with “a program for embracing the disruptive decentralising new technologies.” If we can’t do that, he believes we’re staring square into a dystopian future.  Ida Auken, Member of Parliament, Parliament of Denmark (Folketinget) set forth a positive vision of what such a utopia could look like: where no one owns or wants for anything, where everything is powered by renewable energy and mass consumerism scaled back – “when products are turned into services,” she writes, “no one has an interest in things with a short life span.”

Technology may not have its own self-generated purpose or intent (yet) but the people who create, use and own it certainly do, and this forces us to act. The question has to be not only what we do about it, but also whether what we are doing is actually an effective use of the limited time and resources we have. There are so many mini crises continually occurring that it’s so easy to simply continue to react, one after the other, like playing an unending game of whack-a-mole. How often do we take the time to question whether the game we are playing is the one we need or want to be – is it just another shoot-em-up video game with prettier graphics than the last one?

At the Sydney University lecture Paul Mason was asked what we, as Australians living in a generally stable and wealthy environment, could do, when all the flashpoints seemed to be in far off corners of the world. Mason’s advice was to get ready. To join the type of organisations that will be necessary to bring people together when the shocks do come – unions, political parties, community groups – the type of group that would be able to act in solidarity at home or abroad. And if we can’t find one that suits us, he recommended finding some like-minded friends and starting one ourselves.

But is that enough? I don’t know.

Whichever way we look at it, change is inevitable. It’s happening all the time at a microscopic level, and a variety of indicators point towards the coming decade as a time of large-scale disruption that could change the way we live. We get to choose what we do in the interim. We could spend our time scrabbling for influence, position or power. We could retreat to towers of self-righteousness to snipe at those who aren’t doing it right. Some people will do that. But I’m not interested in them. I’m interested in the people who can subvert their egos and insecurities; people who can put aside differences, make tough choices and work together to both create change and ride the waves when they come. These are the kind of people we’ll need if we’re going to build a world that will survive. The robots are here, their masters are in charge, and the way out isn’t a spectator sport.

Related Green Agenda content:


The Future of Work and Response

An Automated World?

Next Economy