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Television To be or not to be afraid: Machines are coming for your job, not mine

Vice Special Reports: The Future of Work looks at how entire industries are facing radical upheaval and how these changes are impacting the global economy.

HBO / Crave

This newspaper puts considerable effort and resources into understanding what readers want and like to read. Not long after this column appears online I can see how many people have read it and how long they spent reading it. Drilling a bit deeper I can find out what story they read next. Essentially, computers do that and the information required from them is determined by human beings.

But the column itself is written by yours truly. Using both personal judgment and what computers tell me, and writing skills, I put it together. Turns out, people will pay to get the information, analysis and perspective I provide. Turns out, some people prefer this method of being informed about what to watch, and for them it’s more reliable than a Netflix algorithm.

Vice Special Report: The Future of Work (Friday, Crave/HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) offers one particular perspective on how new developments in automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will change the world of work. It offers a lot of gee-whiz footage and predictions about lost jobs. It’s fascinating, this assertion that “the next Industrial Revolution is upon us.” But it is also a cautionary tale. Just not cautionary enough.

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The one-hour special is very Vice. It’s essentially a millennial look at the near future and it worships at the altar of new technology. There are insertions of worry about a soulless future in which people basically help robots do jobs. It’s a very peculiar program, and revealing – in that a generation that might be most affected by change is unsure about what’s good and bad about it all.

It opens with Vice correspondent Krishna Andavolu doing a ride-along in an “autonomous“ truck. There’s no driver and the truck is being tested on busy roads.

It’s pointed out that trucking employs 1.8 million people in the United States and when automation goes full-throttle, many will be unemployed. Asked how truckers might feel about this, the head of the company streamlining the new kind of truck says, “We try not to tell truckers things. We try to listen.” Some truckers are invited for a chat. They are rueful.

Then some economists are interviewed. Some say AI and automation have already ruined a generation of workers, saying that many wages are at the same level as 60 years ago when adjusted for inflation. There is no room to improve your lot in this economy. Another economist says the current pace of change is like “putting drops of blood into a shark tank.”

Moving on, the program features a fast-food restaurant that has robots flipping burgers. So, even basic burger-flipping work is on the way out? Well, the guy in charge says they need people to help the robot.

At Amazon, a top executive is gleeful when explaining how automation speeds delivery of goods. He sort-of longs for the day, which is coming, when there are robots with better judgment and more dexterous hands. An ex-Amazon worker is interviewed, a young man who says you are “working for the robots” at Amazon and his repetitive job almost destroyed him. The only agency he had in that job was choosing what to eat for lunch.

Still, as we are enthusiastically told by some other execs, it’s all about “cobotics,” or human/machine collaboration. The program then moves on to a glancing look at government/industry collaboration in training workers for the new AI/robotic age. The Governor of Kentucky says private industry must take the lead and leave government out of it. He looks startled when the Vice reporter points out that we don’t elect Toyota execs to help us, we elect politicians.

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Eventually, when the possibility of mass unemployment is presented, the idea of a universal basic income is studied. One economist duly scoffs at this. But the mayor of Stockton, Calif., who is in his 20s, believes fully in the basic-income principle.

We are left at the end with one of those truck drivers who was initially impressed by automation. Away from the chief executive of that company creating the “autonomous” trucks, he is less rueful: “There will be a crash, there will be a lot of outrage, riots more or less. People gonna fight to keep their jobs. What do you think’s gonna happen when you get the whole world pissed off.”

Thing is, and what the program doesn’t make clear, is that a lot of the world is angry already. Vice seems confused by this.

Eventually, somebody else will do my job. If you think a computer can do it, just look at what Netflix recommends you watch, and figure it out.

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