Is our robot society ready to be human?

PHOTO: emdot, Flickr CC

A 19-year-old Swedish miner sees new automation coming to the underground mine where he works. “In less than 10 years, he says, “this will then all be automated, but I’m not worried — there will always be other work tasks.”

Another miner guides a haul truck through a winter-cold mine shaft. He’s sitting in a warm office, using remote control. His attitude? If he were in the truck himself he’d be breathing tiny rock particles at tremendously greater risk of injury. This is safer and more productive.

I recently read the Dec. 27, 2017 New York Times story, “The Robots are Coming, and Sweden is Fine,” by Peter S. Goodman. That’s where these quotes came from. It’s a stunning contrast from the way Americans, including yours truly, talk about automation.

From the Goodman piece in the Times

“In Sweden, if you ask a union leader, ‘Are you afraid of new technology?’ they will answer, ‘No, I’m afraid of old technology,’” says the Swedish minister for employment and integration, Ylva Johansson. “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.”

In other words, the job of the people is to develop themselves for ever-changing work. The job of the government is to help people do this.

The story exposes one of the biggest differences between the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries so often celebrated by liberal thinkers. Sweden and its neighbors, at least for now, believe in a social contract — a shared obligation to help everyone. About half of Americans recoil at such a thought, or at least vote that way. We’re in it for ourselves; we sink or swim based on merit. True or not, that’s the narrative that defines America. And that’s why automation scares us.

Ever since John Henry’s mythical hammer race against the steam drill, Americans from the left and right lament how automation takes jobs. Because the national mythos declares that jobs are meritorious — good people have them, bad people don’t — we fear progress that disrupts jobs. Unless that progress comes with new jobs …. for us specifically.

It is rarely that simple.

Post-secondary education

In the U.S., once a world innovator in higher education as a tool for class mobility, college used to be affordable. Working class kids could work their way through and emerge debt-free. That’s a tough order these days. More people go to college; more people go into debt. College itself has changed, too, moving away from the classical liberal arts tradition and yet still not syncing with the economy, either. So people’s skills end out of whack with job openings, while the graduates end up weak on the fundamentals. I teach at a community and technical college, probably the most successful sector of American higher education right now. And yet retention and job placement remain our most pressing challenges.

In Sweden, college is covered. They pay for it with high taxes on their highly productive and profitable companies and people who benefit the most from productivity and profits. Your career training starts younger, too. (So young that you can be the 19-year-old miner referenced earlier).

In 2015, I wrote about Lindbäcks Bygg, a modular construction product company in far northern Sweden. This family-owned lumber business stayed alive by adding value to its products. When the lumber market dropped out years ago (just as it did here in Minnesota), the business owners worked with the local college to completely retrain its workforce for a new purpose. Not only did it keep the business going, but this year Lindbäcks expanded enormously, hiring more workers than ever.

The Safety Net

In the U.S., we have a safety net. There’s unemployment insurance. Retraining money. Welfare and medical assistance. But always limited. And the onus tends to be on the individual to figure it all out with minimal help. This limits the effectiveness of this spending. Despite the condescending rhetoric of “welfare moms,” no one who lives on benefits enjoys it much (most of them are children or elderly). But they aren’t given many tools to change their lives, either.

Health care still vexes this country, exposed by Obamacare’s shortcomings, and highlighted by its successes. Even an entirely GOP-run Congress and White House have yet to implement a better, more fiscally sound way to continue covering people once denied health care because of cost or pre-existing condition.

America continue to chase lower taxes and a complicated mishmash of of social programs, all while making it easy for the wealthy to horde more of their money away from the communities where it could do more good.

Sweden? Well, see above. Higher taxes, which sucks. But you’re covered. And the wealthy still make money and have more reason to reinvest their profits in innovation.

Another quote from Goodman’s Times story:

“A good safety net is good for entrepreneurship,” says Carl Melin, policy director at Futurion, a research institution in Stockholm. “If a project doesn’t succeed, you don’t have to go broke.”

My American students miss class because of child care issues, changing shifts at menial jobs that provide their health care coverage, and lack of transportation. These are also reasons that people don’t start small businesses. Further, these are also reasons that nuclear families struggle to stay together. All because “winner-take-all” ruins the necessary losers.

These are all issues that Sweden helps its citizens solve.

Nothing’s perfect

There’s no such thing as Utopia, though. Sweden and other European countries possess stronger safety nets now, but those nets are strained with rapidly growing immigrant populations. Conservative parties across Scandinavia grow stronger — slowly, but markedly. Some argue that a nation can’t sustain what Sweden is doing. That’s certainly the argument of those who don’t want this sort of system in America.

But most Swedes still think they can make it just fine. And that attitude alone seems to make a big difference.

As I’ve written before, automation is coming. It’s coming to America cities, but also all the way here to Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. It’s coming to our roads, our stores and our mines, too. Are we prepared to benefit? Will we demand that the companies that profit from robotic productivity pay a premium on those profits to protect the very human communities affected by change?

Or will we fight for our old jobs, our old ways? Where workers get repetitive motion injuries and are replaced for cheaper and cheaper parts. Are we the robots? Or are we the humans?

I am a human. And so are all the people I know, from miners to gas station clerks to stay-at-home moms. We must only act on this truth. We may yet.

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