Machines, coming over here, taking our jobs

I spend most of my working life striving to automate things, but in other parts of my life (what remains of it aside from work) I’m getting increasingly annoyed with the automation of everyday life.

Supermarket self-checkout machines, “live chat” customer service… I could pick from any number of modern irritants made worse by the removal of humans, but today I’m going to pick on TfL‘s ticketing system.

Transport for London are planning more strikes primarily over the closure of manned ticket offices. Striking to protest against a machine taking your job seems more than a little ironic to me, but although I don’t support the strike, I do support humans in jobs, because at least in theory humans provide value that machines cannot replicate.

I say “in theory” because this statement may be wrong on two counts:

  1. That artificial intelligence will never rival humans’ unique decision-making and moral capacities.
  2. That humans haven’t already given in and accepted machines as their superiors.

On the first point, most people would probably assume that human intervention is essential, that machines cannot be trusted to make decisions, but an AI expert would probably tell you that we’re already on the path to handing over decision-making to machines and it’s not like nobody’s thought about the ethics.

You may laugh at the second point, but today I was in need of human intervention from TfL staff when my travel card was  massively overcharged due to a “machine error”. I shan’t bore you with the details of what went wrong, but when I approached staff with my predicament I expected to be met with the most human of all decision-making skills: Discretion. To my anguish, the two members of staff I spoke to refused to make a decision that went against the obviously incorrect machine “decision”. Their reliance on the automated system was such that in the absence of any evidence the machine could provide, it could only be the customer that was at fault.

Once I’d stopped being furious, I started to think about what it means for us to be both reliant upon and in direct competition with machines.

In my line of work a new company or software tool comes out every week which “replaces” my previously acquired knowledge and skill. My reaction could be annoyance that my job appears suddenly easier; that my hard-earned skills are less valuable; that I have less advantage over others who never had to do it the “hard way”. But it does no good complaining about it. The march of automation didn’t stop 200 years ago and it’s not going to slow down now. When skilled tasks are made easier we are freed from a previous burden and can find new ways to assert our unique value. 

Fortunately for us (including TfL employees) we’re only competing with dumb automation for the time being. If machines ever have the free-will to exercise discretion and moral judgement, it’ll be because we gave it to them in order to make our decisions for us. That’s only going to happen if it turns out we actually have nothing to add.