A few weeks ago, Elon Musk announced that his company, Tesla, plans to have a humanoid robot prototype ready next year. The intention is to create a 56kg machine that isn’t “super expensive” to retail. Oh, yes: the commercial application of the planned robot is absolutely to replace human jobs – the ones that Musk himself finds “boring”. Like ones working in factories, and supermarkets.
Some argued the announcement was a troll. It wasn’t just that Musk’s speech was preceded by a dancer grooving to dubstep in costume as the robot, or that robotics companies with more skin in the long game than Tesla say the technology is nowhere near what Musk’s proposing. It’s that this convenient moment of dance theatre occurred amid a US federal investigation into Tesla self-driving cars after a series of collisions with parked emergency vehicles.
Alas, whether it’s a troll, deadly serious or some sly distraction act, we have to take Musk at his word because now that he’s valued at over US$180bn (A$246bn), he has the dollars to crystallise any notion he fancies.
In the past, these have included admirable projects such as Tesla cars and battery storage technology. There’s also been PayPal. But the “Tesla Bot” belongs in a real-world Musk canon of flinging a car into space, his proposed colonisation of Mars, and wiring electrodes into pigs’ brains. This last is apparently part of an attempt to technologically facilitate a “conceptual telepathy” that will allow humanity to prevail in a future war against radical AI, and ultimately envisions brain cavitation with a USB portal in the skull. Musk called it a “FitBit for the brain”. I swear I am not making this up.
In the wake of watching Musk’s bro-billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos indulge themselves in humanity’s first rocket-powered Battle of the Space Wangs, it is beyond time to evaluate how much transformational control we give unelected, self-indulgent billionaires over our societies, and our lives.
The conception of the “Tesla Bot” again reveals the consistently alarming truth: billionaires have had their wealth rewarded with unaccountable power for so long they no longer know and certainly don’t care about what the world looks like for the rest of us.
Like what happens to jobs. “The job of attaching bolts to cars with a spanner” is, apparently, the one for the robot to replace, even though manufacturing has been skilled, respectable work for generations of human beings. Also cited for robot-replacement is grocery collection from supermarkets, which has, for all its pay deprivations, provided flexible work opportunities for people managing complex care commitments.
Musk’s announcement didn’t, of course, come with an alternative jobs plan for the displaced. Just the vague suggestion that an expensive, unpopular and desocialising “universal basic income” scheme – the responsibility of governments, of course, not corporations like his own - might somehow pick up the slack.
Jobs aren’t just about the work you do, they’re about the community and collective enrichment of skill that the workplace provides. The depressing lack of that socialisation felt by the vast swathes of Australians presently locked down by coronavirus is the bleak inertia of “hysteresis” – a syndrome known too well by the long term unemployed.
It’s likely to be experienced by far more people and long beyond coronavirus, given how excitedly Musk spoke of the profound impact the “Tesla Bot” was likely to have on the economy. The robot could plug shortages in the labour market, he said.
That’s the commercial appeal of the “Tesla bot” to its prospective market of employers.
Musk’s robot, you see, is electrified neoliberalism.
Employers do not like labour shortages because labour shortages empower workers to make demands for fair wages and conditions. The labour shortage that followed in the wake of Europe’s bubonic plague ended serfdom across much of western Europe; formerly all-powerful land barons were forced to compete for surviving labourers.
The complex impact of coronavirus in the United States is having similar effects. According to the US Department of Labor, there are presently more than 10 million job openings there, and suggestions that there are about one million more jobs available than workers looking to fill them.
After years of wielding the threat of unemployment as a means of wage suppression, labour shortages are providing workers enough bargaining power to hold out for pay increases, or to trade their present jobs for higher-paying ones elsewhere.
Into this rare window of opportunity for working people to regain some workplace ground steps Musk’s proposition of an affordable Tesla robot whose primary function is to snatch it away.
The old Silicon Valley motto of “go fast and break things” may be how screamingly wealthy unaccountable brain-farters like to pretend they’re punk rock, but as a governing principle for a society, what gets broken are people.
This is not a neo-Luddite screed. In Australia, the introduction of technology to healthcare did not destroy nursing because nursing unions mobilised enough local democratic will for their existing jobs to be enhanced by innovation, not replaced by it. Democratic regulation can, should and must impose necessary lines between entrepreneurship and aristocratic folly; billionaires do not self-regulate.
But a regulatory approach that waits until the horse has gone out and built a robot before the stable door gets shut is too late to the problem.
Our world is of finite resources. A system that privileges a few to pursue personal fascinations with an apparent flagrant disregard for everyone else is one that not merely fails the majority, but endangers them.
There is an old-fashioned way to ensure that in the west, as least, management of those resources are brought safely under democratic control. Tax the billionaires into the ground.