Robots, artificial intelligence, and us

This is an open letter to one reader who shall, with all pity, remain nameless. In response to several articles I recently wrote about robots, he crawled up one side of me and down the other, telling me basically that because of robots and and artificial intelligence we’re all going to lose our jobs – and it was the result of sinister forces, big government, mad scientists, and even George Orwell, if I got his drift. Armageddon!

So OK, dear reader, here’s my answer – if you’re still reading.

Let’s start with a riddle. If 80 percent of workers in Sweden have favorable views of robots vis-à-vis the job market, and concurrently 72 percent of Americans have negative views, according to a Pew Research Center survey, who’s right? A more drastic contrast couldn’t exist, could it?

Here, for example, we’re trying to save coal mining jobs, which will do nothing more than continue to send miners underground, inhaling dust and exhaust fumes; risking injury, ill health, or death; and generally not increasing the productivity of the mines. But we saved their jobs. Never mind that it’s a dying industry to begin with; we saved their jobs. Have we created jobs? No.

In Sweden, conversely, robots are digging deeper and deeper underground while  drivereless trucks made by Volvo are bringing out the ore. The result? More production (and revenue), safer conditions, and plenty of new above-ground jobs doing things like operating the computers that, in turn, set in motion the robots and trucks that dig, load, and excavate. Who’s operating these controls? Former miners who have been retrained – quite happily – and who now have better lifestyles, safer jobs, and bigger paychecks. And … Sweden has an increasing share of the global market in several ores, Volvo has a new target market, and, as a result, their job market has seen a net increase in job creation while wages rise.

So who’s got the right attitude, the Swedes or us? (By the way, this is happening in many places besides Sweden.)

Now you might say – and rightly so – that their government has a lot to do with this, and that is the biggest difference of all. Perhaps, but that makes the argument neither wrong nor impossible that “government” is not a four-letter word. Who else can do this at the scope it needs to be done, in a unified way, and with the national interest in mind?

As one rerport highlighted, in the US we’re protecting jobs; in Sweden they’re protecting workers. And that, right there, explains the difference in attitudes between the Swedes and us.

Nearly five years ago, in a 6-part series of essays identifying major 21st century trends, I wrote a commentary called “The Four Partners” in which I made clear my assessment that a cooperative effort among four players – government, higher education, industry, and individuals – had to be forged in order for our job market to continue to create not just jobs, but jobs of the future, enabling America to maintain leadership positions in areas such as energy, healthcare, space, transportation, computer science, urban planning, food production, and so on.

I have great faith that, in the absence of strong federal initiatives in these fields, our states and our private sector leaders, finding the idea of losing leadership positions unacceptable, will continue to move forward. Iowa, for instance, is producing wind energy at a rate (37 percent) nearly equivalent to Denmark (40 percent), the world’s leader.

Embedded in all of this are robots and artificial intelligence. The riddle is, are they friends of foes? The paradoxical answer is both, but it depends on how we look at it (our attitude) and how we deal with it (our actions). If we think these things are going to take our jobs away, we’re probably right. If we think they’re going to create new and better jobs and that we need to get with the program, then I submit, we’re right also. Which “right” do we want to be? The only prod I’ll give you right now is that more of the initiative at this time must come from the individual. A word to the wise.

Until larger forces step in, we must do all we can on an individual level, and to get into the right mindframe, we should remember what Carlos Castaneda said: “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

Somebody say Amen!

Thanks for the inspiration, dear reader.

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