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It’s the Robots, Stupid: the Fundamental Issue None of the Candidates Want to Talk About

It’s the robots, stupid.

The rabid anti-immigrant campaign of Donald Trump mirrors the racist vitriol of right-wing politicians across much of the developed world. But totally absent from what passes for political debate in the U.S. and abroad is what’s really driving those ever more incendiary movements.

They are fueled by fear. There’s the dread of terrorist attacks, to be sure. But much more pervasive is the unremitting, anxiety of hundreds of millions in the developed world that they are threatened by change, by dark forces they neither understand nor control—by rampant unemployment, a diminished standard of living. They have been brought up to believe that hard work and sacrifice would bring a better life. No longer.

Donald Trump tells them hordes of immigrants, illegal aliens and disastrous trade pacts are to blame. But Trump—as well as those excoriating him–are totally missing the point.

The major force impacting our society is the spectacular advance of technologies —robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. The dizzying pace of change is only going to accelerate: a chain reaction as we hurtle to warp speed.   (See my previous blog)

Why is this phenomenon not the urgent focus of our political debates? Why are we instead obsessed with illegal aliens and Hillary’s emails?

It used to be that we welcomed advances in technology. We were assured they ultimately create more jobs than they destroy. No longer.

Estimates are that close to half the jobs in the United States are likely to be wiped out or seriously diminished by technological change within the near future. These are not just factory workers, receptionists, secretaries, telephone operators and bank tellers. Sophisticated algorithms will soon replace some 140 million full-time “knowledge workers” worldwide. Those threatened range from computer programmers, to graphic artists to lawyers, to financial analysts and journalists.

Meanwhile robots are being programmed to care for the bourgeoning ranks of the elderly. In Thailand, a solicitous robot, known as Dinsow helps old folks exercise, keep track of their medication, entertain them with its karaoke skills, or help them to videophone their relatives. They also cheerfully answer the same questions ad infinitum from patients suffering from memory loss.

Other companies are manufacturing, soft, pliant life-size robots increasingly proficient at everything from sex to Sumo wrestling.

Indeed, there are serious people who believe that such phenomenal change will not only ravish our workplaces but ultimately challenge the future existence of our species.

So, how to explain why this is not the major issue of the day?

Because, I would argue, the technological revolution is progressing faster than our specie’s ability to deal with it. Which might be a good indication that we’re already on the way to extinction. The questions this revolution highlights are just too complex for us to handle; the answers too mind-bending.

It’s like acknowledging the menace of climate change: recognizing the extraordinary impact of the technological revolution raises too many issues we’d rather not confront.

It’s the fear of peoples who sense that new forces are abroad, shattering our way of life. It’s as if we refused to acknowledge that a comet was hurtling towards us. The difference is that the onrushing threat is now here.

But we seem caught in the glare, paralyzed, unable to act. Trump gives the easy solution: Expel the aliens! Built a wall!

Psychologists would label our refusal to deal with the real menace as cognitive dissonance—attempting to deny or ignore a situation that conflicts with our basic beliefs.

We’ve been taught that technological progress is good. That any destructive impact can be countered by teaching the unemployed new skills; helping them  relocate, improving education nationwide.

But, with the rampaging pace of technological change, what if providing graduate degrees to every American still means that tens of millions will be out of work. If you’re not at serious risk, certainly your kids will be.

How do you cope with the fact that what is largely responsible for the loss of millions of jobs, the relative decline in salaries, the hollowing out of the middle class, and the increasing gap between a tiny percentage of super rich and the growing army of the poor are not just craven politicians and grasping Wall Street bankers, but the inexorable process by which “capital” (i.e. machinery and robots and computers, memory banks and the like) are taking more and more of what used to be “labor’s” share in producing new goods and services.

As human labor is being replaced at a vertiginous rate by non-salaried robots so is human labor’s claim to its rightful share of the national product.  Meanwhile the people owning the “capital” are making enormous fortunes.

But where do you see that process being seriously discussed? Certainly not by the politicians nor the army of journalists covering the campaign. Such facts would only clutter the cozy simplistic world that Donald Trump and demagogues around the world thrive in.

The need to tackle the real issue is urgent. But our predicament is monumental.

For, when you think about it, what is there to do? Ban technological research?  Limit the advance of Artificial Intelligence?

Attempt at least to control the rate of change? Tax companies for each robot they add? Put tariffs on imported goods made by robots?  Require products to be labeled with the percentage of content made by humans?

Protect established professions? Limiting robots in hospitals, for example (where robots are already diagnosing and operating. ). Shield millions of other workers by outlawing self-driving cars? (Tens of thousands such cars will be on the roads in the next five years).

What if we are streaking towards a society where the great majority of people—even if they are extraordinarily educated —will not find a job.  We’re talking about a society where almost everything we need will be produced by robots; perhaps with the input of a tiny fraction of the human population.

In one respect, that could be the ultimate utopia—every human able to do whatever he/she wants—except work. All the goods and services provided to them and their families by a government via some algorithm that does away with the need for people to have to pay for what they consume.

All this thanks to the marvelous ever more advanced generations of dedicated robots laboring 24/7 for our benefit.

That’s assuming the robots want to keep us around.

In fact, those robots would in effect be new species, as many futurists now predict, a species that would supersede us just as we supplanted the apes and chimpanzees.

How will this new super species choose to deal with us?  Of what use—other than as an interesting biological curiosity unable to cope or survive in a furiously changing world–would we be to them?

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BARRY LANDO is a former producer for 60 Minutes. He is the author of  “Deep Strike” a novel about Russian hacking, rogue CIA agents, and a new American president. He can be reached at: barrylando@gmail.com or through his website.

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