My son the political theorist likes to remind me of Aristotle’s model of society, where people fall into one of three classes: the aristocracy, the craftsmen and the slaves. “The aristocrats have leisure and education, and therefore use their time to pursue the good. They are ‘the virtuous.’ The craftsmen or artisans have less leisure and less education, and therefore use their time to pursue wealth and/or status. They are ‘the vulgar.’ The slaves have very little leisure and education, and therefore are used as tools to create leisure and education for other people. They are ‘the slavish,’” he writes.
You can argue about the details, but few Americans wouldn't see the reason behind this notion of three classes based on social status and wealth.
Over the past few years, we’ve been barraged with news about increased levels of automation, and dreaded or enjoyed the potential of robots to free the slavish (or take our jobs) by doing drudgery and producing the essentials of life. Robots will clean our houses, drive our cars, and certainly become the brains and muscle of production in manufacturing. We’ve salved our concerns by listening to reports that automation doesn’t replace the slaves, that it elevates their work and creates a new demand for qualified craftsmen and artisans, and all will be well if we can just change our priorities and education system (STEM!) to feed the new beasts.
We admire the people we see as modern aristocrats—the rich and sometimes famous—for being role models and engines that make possible the capitalism that lets us be (more or less) comfortable. We imagine them as decent human beings, motivated at least as much by their need to live in a contented, stable society as by their hunger for ever more money, real estate and power.
But, that American dream took a significant hit at the recent World Economic Forum global meeting of the politically and financially well-endowed in Davos, Switzerland, where The New York Times (NYT) reported, “In public, many executives wring their hands over the negative consequences that artificial intelligence and automation could have for workers…But in private settings, including meetings with the leaders of the many consulting and technology firms whose pop-up storefronts line the Davos Promenade, these executives tell a different story: They're racing to automate their own workforces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.
The NYT article also quoted Mohit Joshi, president, Infosys, who said, “Earlier, they had incremental, 5% to 10% goals in reducing their workforce. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1% of the people we have?”
As the experts in automation whom the Davos billionaires must enlist to transform our society by shifting work from people to capital equipment, allowing them to literally own the machines that generate wealth instead of renting pesky people by the hour, you’re uniquely positioned to guide this transition. You can toady up, turn your back on the newly jobless, and just be thankful you have the skills to survive.
Or, you can serve as a check and balance, doing all you can to help those millionaires see the wisdom of expanding their wealth and influence by retraining, elevating and leveraging the value of the human workforce.
In the end, as economic inequality grows and discontent makes the world more dangerous, the rich, their friends and families will thrive behind walls, armed guards and the governments they purchase by proxy. The merely comfortable will be more vulnerable to a society with the deteriorating infrastructure, poor education and third-world services of societies where the economic security of the bottom 90% becomes more precarious.
You’ll probably never be welcome in Davos, but you can bring your automation expertise to the people who deserve it most.