Marching to Dystopia

Trudeau wants to make Canada "a world leader" in Artificial Intelligence – a sector poised to eliminate millions of jobs in the coming years. So what is an economy for? or people?

Joyce Nelson

(photo by helran)

It wasn’t that long ago (October 2016) that federal Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau got into trouble when he said that Canadian youth need to “get used to” job churn — the crappy, short-term contract jobs with low pay and no benefits that are the hallmark of the “precariat” future. “We have to accept that,” Morneau pontificated.

Only days later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was heckled by participants at the Young Workers’ Summit organized by the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa. Several young people stood and turned their backs on Trudeau, a sign of their frustration over dismal work prospects. At the time, a Princeton University study had concluded that 94% of the nine million new jobs created over the past decade are temporary or contract-based positions, not full time jobs with benefits.

Now the Trudeau Liberals are jumping on the artificial intelligence (AI) bandwagon, which (according to experts) is poised to eliminate millions of jobs over the next 15 years. The March 2017 federal budget is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into AI, including $125 million for a “Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy” to make Canada “a world leader” in AI. “We can’t afford not to be,” Morneau told the House of Commons.

AI “Advantage”

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) will be in charge of doling out the $125 million in AI funding. But don’t let the name fool you. CIFAR’s global research networks extend across 133 institutions in 16 countries, providing research funds to more than 400 individuals, about half located in Canada. In addition to that $125 million, Budget 2017 pumps $35 million into CIFAR itself over the next five years. The Institute also gets funding from corporations, foundations, individuals, and the provinces of BC, Alberta, and Ontario.

The Liberals are also providing tax measures that support the AI sector at both federal and provincial levels, and their Strategic Innovation Fund promises more millions to help businesses turn Canada into “an advanced digital environment” with an “advantage in artificial intelligence.”

SAM100 is a bricklaying robot – comprised of a conveyor belt, robotic arm and concrete pump – that can lay 3,000 bricks per day. By comparison, a human bricklayer can lay about 500 bricks per day.

Just days after Budget 2017 was tabled, Ottawa announced another $50 million for a new AI institute called Vector Institute in Toronto, with an additional $50 million from the Ontario government, and $80 million from the private sector. In announcing the funding, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stated: “We can’t deny that as machines get smarter, they will do some of the work that we do now. So as premier it is my job to make sure we’re managing these changes in a way that creates more opportunity, more security in people’s lives, not less, because we need to embrace AI and technology. The economic and quality of life opportunities are enormous.”

Of course, there is deep irony in our tax dollars going to support the eventual elimination of our jobs, but the politicians are hoping no one will notice.

Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains has said that fostering AI is one of the pillars of the government’s growth strategy. Even the Bank of Canada is promoting AI. In April, senior deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins told the Toronto Board of Trade that “Canada should embrace new technologies,” even as she cited studies that indicate about 40 per cent of current jobs will be automated by 2030.

Wilkins told the elite audience, “If we want to continue to prosper, we have to improve our productivity. Clearly, blaming the machines is not the way forward,” she said. “Productivity growth is the only game in town when it comes to raising the economic and financial well-being of people over a long period.”

“Productivity Growth”

As a key gauge of economic efficiency (according to mainstream economists), “productivity growth” generally means increasing output per hour worked. For example, consider the SAM100 – otherwise known as the Semi-Automated Mason created by New York-based Construction Robotics. SAM100 is a bricklaying robot – comprised of a conveyor belt, robotic arm and concrete pump – that can lay 3,000 bricks per day. By comparison, a human bricklayer can lay about 500 bricks per day.

So in terms of “productivity growth,” SAM100 is six times more productive than the human bricklayer. SAM100 still needs to have a human partner to smooth the concrete before the next brick is placed, but no doubt Construction Robotics is working on that aspect.

SAM100 costs about $500,000 per unit, but reportedly the robot is already working on building sites across the US, so apparently some companies have done the math and figured that the investment will pay off as human labour costs are eliminated.

“The jobs not destroyed by free trade are being wiped out by robots and artificial intelligence. For a lucky and diminishing few, there is still lucrative work. The rest must make do with badly paid, precarious employment.”

Indeed, reducing labour costs is the primary motivation behind AI, despite any spin about “well-being of people.” You can read the January 2017 report by McKinsey & Company – called “A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, and Productivity” – and count the number of times the term “labor cost savings” is mentioned, despite the glowing words about a “productivity boost” to the economy. McKinsey’s Dominic Barton is a top adviser to the Trudeau cabinet.

It’s not just the McJobs (like hamburger flipper) that are being automated. Already there are robot surgeons, robot chefs, robot security guards, robot news writers, robot teachers interacting with children, robot nurses, robot pharmacists, etc., etc. In fact, as writer Paul Buchheit, author of the 2017 book Disposable Americans, has revealed, “The European Parliament is considering the granting of legal status to robots as ‘electronic persons’.”

Like billionaires Bill Gates and Elon Musk, McKinsey & Company recommends that policy makers will need to “think through how to support the redeployment of potentially large numbers of displaced workers” by considering a “universal basic income” or “adapted social safety nets.” It probably shouldn’t surprise us that less than one month after Premier Wynne pumped $50 million into the Vector Institute, she announced a pilot program for a “basic income plan” to be tested in three Ontario towns.

As Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom noted (April 26), discussions about basic income “seem to assume poverty is permanent and unfixable,” with a “sense of inevitability” to it. “The jobs not destroyed by free trade are being wiped out by robots and artificial intelligence. For a lucky and diminishing few, there is still lucrative work. The rest must make do with badly paid, precarious employment.”

Basic Questions

AI raises two basic questions. First, what is an economy for?

Personally, I consider AI the next step in the austerity measures pursued under Milton Friedman’s “free market capitalism,” otherwise called neoliberalism. AI further facilitates unlimited power and wealth accumulating in the hands of a very few. Indeed, the McKinsey report notes that “On a strategic level, automation could enable the emergence of massively scaled organizations, instantly able to propagate changes that come from headquarters.” While McKinsey recognizes “a growing divide between technological leaders and laggards,” it has less to say about the huge divide in income inequality that AI enhances.

The second question that AI raises is: what are people for?

That was the title of Wendell Berry’s 1990 collection of essays, where he wrote, “Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal? One would conclude so from our attitude toward work, especially the manual work necessary to the long-term preservation of the land, and from our rush toward mechanization, automation, and computerization.” Twenty-seven years later, the question is even more urgent.

Tech entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk recently launched a company called Neuralink, which will link the human brain to machine interface – apparently a step beyond CIFAR’s “deep learning” program. Musk has reportedly stated that “humans would need to merge with machines or risk becoming irrelevant.”

At least Musk is honest about the attitude of our overlords. A tax on robots (as some are recommending) comes nowhere near addressing the issues.


Further Reading on Basic Income

David Bush, “Basic Income and the Logic of Capitalism,” globalresearch.ca, April 26, 2017.

Andrea Germanos, “Because It’s Time for ‘New, Radical Ideas,’ TED Talk on Universal Basic Income Gets Thunderous Applause,” commondreams.org, April 26, 2017.

John Clarke, “Basic Income: Progressive Dreams Meet Neoliberal Realities,” The Bullet, January 2, 2017.

Laurie Monsebraaten, “Ontario embraces no-strings-attached basic income experiment,” Toronto Star, April 18, 2017.

Rick Salutin, “When talking guaranteed basic income, let’s not forget the need to contest power,” rabble.ca, April 14, 2017.

Jason Hickel, “Basic income isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a birthright,” The Guardian, March 4, 2017.

Vaios Triantafyllou, “The Future of Automation Demands a Socialized Workplace,” truth-out.org, April 12, 2017.


Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of six books.

Watershed Sentinel Original Content

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital