Robots are after your manager’s job, not yours

John Hancock and John Henry had little in common other than they had the same initials, were both Americans and that legends are attached to each of their names.

John Hancock provided the first, largest, and most visible signature on the Declaration of Independence, and his name has become a synonym for signing our names. Legend has it that he made his signature very large, “so that King George could read it,” an act of bravado and a symbol of defiance as he and the other signers knew they faced certain death if the Revolution failed.

John Henry was a “steel driver,” hammering a star-drill in railroad tunnels, pounding the drill into the rocks to make cylindrical holes that would be filled with dynamite. In some circles, John Henry’s name has also become a synonym for our signatures, too, although it is not clear why. There are no known documents containing his signature.

The legend of John Henry describes his race against a new machine to see which was faster at drilling the holes. In the Disney animated film as well as the Johnny Cash ballad, John Henry and the machine were driving rail spikes, but the outcome was the same: John Henry won, but his heart gave out from the effort and he died that night, his hammer in his hand.

There is plenty of symbolism in the legend, and it touches our hearts as well as our minds. We cheer for the victory of the human spirit even while recognizing its cost and realizing that machines were changing things in ways that could never be reversed.

The legend of John Henry and the idea of a workplace contest of man vs. machine was evoked during the remarkably brief debate over the $15 minimum wage in Seattle. Opponents of the wage hike said that a jump that large in wages would accelerate the process of replacing human labor with technology-based solutions.

The argument failed to get any traction, let alone carry the day. For those who thought about it at all, it produced little more than a comic image of robots asking, in English still bearing traces of an upper-class Klingon education, “Do you want fries with that?”

We all think that we are irreplaceable. The romantic, religious, and in this country at least, legal notion that each of us is unique unto ourselves and important because of it is part of growing up as an American, part of our legacy from John Hancock’s signature and those of the others who founded our country. It is a source of energy and strength to us as individuals and as a nation. It also allows us to honor tradition and embrace change at the same time, a gift that few countries have enjoyed.

The substitution of technology for labor is as old as capitalism, and probably as old as knowledge itself. Our present and future confrontation with technology, though, while not necessarily new, will be especially interesting.

The traditional substitution process involved replacing men with machines of some sort. The newest technology, though, is not aimed at our physical skills but at our thinking skills. Instead of competing against clunky robots with bad accents we will have to deal with assemblages of algorithms that can master information, learn and “think” like us, only tirelessly, more reliably, and, in short, better.

One of the most foreboding books on this subject in recent years was written by psychologist and Nobel laureate in economics, Daniel Kahneman, and entitled, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” In it he demonstrates pretty clearly that because of the imperfect way we think about things, algorithms are often superior to humans in making diagnoses, judgments and decisions.

Our new competition is an artificial organism that can sing that Irving Berlin song, “Anything you can do, I can do better” — and prove it.

A current indicator of where the technology vs. labor action is going is the growing use of workplace surveillance data to measure worker activity. Workers believe that this is being done to facilitate cutbacks, layoffs and increased productivity norms.

Actually, though, the real target is management. The marriage of worker activity data analysis with output metrics will eventually allow computer algorithms to make all the decisions managers now make. Managers will no longer be needed.

The seemingly relentless progression of substituting technology for humanity moves at its own pace, and we have done little to steer its course. There are immediate priorities that demand our attention in these days, of course, but we should try to find time to consider what our economy will look like when human thought is no longer an essential part of it. It will be interesting.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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