November 19th, 2018

The decline of human labour

By Letter to the Editor on July 11, 2018.

The back cover of the May 12 “Economist” was an advertisement of a computer software company. It boldly claimed: “No human labour – half the cost. No human error – 100 per cent more reliable.” The message is clear: “We don’t need people. They are expensive and unreliable. We eliminate people for you from workplace.” Computers are killing jobs, not immigrants, China or NAFTA.

It is apparent since the Industrial Revolution, progress has been measured by the way the workplace gets rid of human labour. The more advanced the society, the less in need of people. From farmlands to factories, from kitchens to mines, we see more work being done with fewer people. Watch the video of auto assembly plants. We see only robots working, no human in sight. Soon we will see mostly the driverless cars on the roads.

We have to redefine how we see ourselves, because we are no longer what we do. “We are thinking reeds,” said 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal, who invented the calculator. In ancient Greece, all the work, even that in education and medicine, was done by slaves. Those who worked were not seen as fully human. The mark of a free citizen was to spend time thinking to come up with fresh thoughts and discuss. Artisans, farmers and merchants had to struggle many centuries to be recognized as human. We are moving back to those days. Computers replaced slaves.

The economy is moving towards knowledge based. Ideas are the precious commodity. Facebook was just an idea in the mind of a university student in a dormitory. It made Mark Zuckerberg one of the richest people in the world. Manufacturing today is done where labour is cheap. Japan and Korea were the suppliers of cheap labour 50 years ago. No more. China still is, but not too much longer. Ultimately all work will be done by robots, because cheap human labour will eventually disappear. Only brains will keep working for money. Thinking and teaching how to think should be the purpose of education.

How then do we make money to live if there’s no work? Publicly funded guaranteed income is suggested. In Canada, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, not a socialist, suggested it. Premier Doug Ford supports the idea. Robots make what we need. We spend time thinking, and get paid for ideas. We make art and contemplate. Conversation between people will flourish. It’s a beautiful new world.

Tadashi (Tad) Mitsui


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