I currently work as a freelance editor and writer, making almost all my income from these efforts. It’s the remote worker dream, one that I would be reluctant to give up, even for higher pay. I like setting my own schedule so that I can, for instance, write a random blog post when an idea hits me. This morning, at around 6:45 a.m., an idea hit me.
One of my most recent gigs is as a translator of textbooks, translating Spanish to English. Now, to be clear, despite the fact that I have lived in Madrid for nearly 4.5 years, my Spanish is quite mediocre. As in, my reading level might, might, be B1, and my speaking level is even worse. I survive in Spain in large part due to having a partner whose Spanish is much better than mine and the fact that most of my day-to-day interactions can be done in English or remedial Spanish.
I write all of that to say there is no one more surprised than me that I am a Spanish-to-English translator. What qualifications do I have? Well, for my clients, the main one is that I am a native English speaker/writer with an above-average writing and editing ability (I type this fully aware that there will probably be three typos in this thing after I post it). And that, it turns out, is just as valuable for this particular gig as someone with fluency in both languages.
I am able to do my job because of the existence of DeepL and, to a lesser degree, Google Translate. Years ago, it was common to joke about how these translation services mangled language. There was a common ritual that involved the translation of an English phrase through multiple languages and then back to English to see what kind of word salad you ended up with. These days, such a meme is a relic of a bygone era.
That’s not to say these translators are now perfect (far from it, which is why I have a job), but they certainly are vastly better than they used to be even just a few years ago. As an experiment, I tried translating the English phrase “I love you to death” with DeepL, running it through Spanish, then Dutch, and then Japanese. When I translated it back to English, it returned “I love you to death.” That’s just an anecdote, but the point is, these translation tools have gotten far more sophisticated in a short span of time.
That’s largely due to AI. Artificial Intelligence is being used in basically every business and science field imaginable, mostly in ways far less sexy or menacing than decades of science fiction have led us to believe it would be. AI is the future, but also, it’s the present. While the kind of AI we’re used to seeing in films like I, Robot is quite possibly a century or more out, its use on a smaller, more workmanlike scale is already universal.
Now, as you can tell by the title of this post, I’m not here to write about AI (the little I do discuss AI owes a great deal to the excellent book by Hannah Fry, Hello World; pick it up). I only bring it up because it’s intricately linked to the work I do now. Without its existence and its improvement to translating technology, I would be ineligible for my current gig. Someone who was actually bilingual and a good writer/editor would be required for the job, and they would be able to ask for a far higher wage for their efforts. Aye, there’s the rub.
For the last year or so, I have been asking people, “Could your job be done by a machine?” Some people reply, unequivocally, yes, while others say probably. And still others state that parts of their job can be done by a machine, but it would lack the “human” element. Few if any people have ever said absolutely not.
As a writer, I like to think that I bring something to the table that AI (or Robby the Robot) couldn’t. Creativity, life experience, emotion, faulty logic – the “human” element. But the reality is that AI is already being used to write books and if that technology improves at even a fraction of the rate translation has improved, we’re going to see a completely AI-written novel top the New York Times Bestseller list within the decade.
(If you’re dubious, read about David Hofstadter’s experiment in AI-generated classical music, which took place all the way back in 1997.)
I, too, would like to think my “humanness” (my specific talent and imagination) brings something to my work that is valuable. Also, I like to get paid for my work. But I know the inevitable reality is that, at some point down the line, my value – and your value – as a worker will be next to nil. That process has already begun.
I have value as a writer and editor because I am pretty good at both skill sets and, frankly, way better than the average person. And for now, that means that I can make a living doing this thing that I love doing. But I have no delusion that I couldn’t be replaced by an algorithm at some point down the line. I can’t help but think about my nephews and nieces and wonder what types of job opportunities will exist for them in the future. (When I accidentally transposed the ‘i’ and ‘e’ in nieces just now, my Word processor automatically corrected it. Thanks technology!)
There’s currently much discussion of self-driving cars and how those will put truck drivers out of work. I think that fear is a little premature because fully self-driving cars are probably a lot further off in the future than people like Elon Musk would lead you to believe (a topic covered thoroughly in Hello World). In my novel, Yahweh’s Children, I make a throwaway joke about a character 40 years in the future still waiting for flying cars. The point being that sometimes the promises of “visionaries” don’t pan out when matched with the pragmatic roadblocks of reality. But I digress.
The truth is that self-driving cars will be a nightmare for truck drivers, but not because it will eliminate all truck driving jobs. What it’s going to eliminate is the need for skilled truck drivers, the type of people who have highly specialized training and can thus demand a higher wage (usually with the help of a union, but, again, I digress). A self-driving truck will still need a human driver (for the foreseeable future), but not one who needs to operate the truck with anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge. So, what happens then? It’s basic economics: far more people will be able to do that job, which means their labor will be worth less, which means they’ll be paid less. But somebody will still take that job; a job’s a job, as they say.
Truck driving is perhaps the most high-profile example of a job potentially being overtaken by technology, but it’s hardly the only profession that is at risk (just read up on how restaurants are looking at tech to replace workers). It’s also not just AI that is making jobs obsolete. The former US President won over some voters by promising to bring back coal mining jobs. It was one of his most transparent lies (as time proved), but also maybe one of the most telling. Coal mining is dying, and though advances in technology are playing a part in accelerating the decline in jobs, the reality is that an industry built on digging up a finite resource was always going to have an expiration date. But a chunk of the world wants to deny reality by putting their heads in the ground, and they will happily support someone who sells them a shovel.
Whatever your job is, whatever amount of humanity you bring to it, just know that at some point – in a few years, in a generation, in four generations – AI and related technology will take much of the skill and individuality out of it. Your position, as it exists now, will be replaced by a machine, possibly with a human to keep things running, but a human who is far less trained and experienced than you. A human who will get paid less than you get paid now, which is already probably lower (in real world dollars) than what someone a generation ago got paid to do your job.
Let me be clear: I’m not an anti-tech prophet of doom. I think technology is great, and even if I didn’t, I’d still know its progress is inevitable. The question isn’t if, it’s when, and all that.
What’s not inevitable (at least, yet) is how society adapts to technology. Anyone who tells you this current economic model of hourly wages and salaries is sustainable either has their head in a hole or is selling shovels. In not too many generations, we will either have a society that provides for its population (its entire population), or we’ll have one where wealth inequality is so astronomical, the concept of a “first-world country” will be meaningless. In both scenarios, let me assure you, the rich will be absolutely fine.
In many ways, the fight over increasing the minimum wage in the US (which I wholeheartedly support) is a sideshow, because at some point it won’t be about finding jobs that pay well, it’ll be about finding any jobs at all. If we acknowledge that technology can do some jobs completely and other jobs partially, we have to accept the math that there will be less jobs available (certainly less jobs that require skill). Considering that the global population is going to still be growing for the next four decades, at least, the decline in jobs that pay a true living wage is a problem that is only going to worsen.
And that’s why you should support a universal living wage*. You, the teacher; you, the doctor; you, the truck driver; you, the computer programmer; you, the writer. It’s not about Communism or Socialism (or any other poorly understood ‘-ism’). If anything, it’s probably the most capitalist idea possible: if you ensure the entire population has enough money to buy food and shelter and clothes and iPhones and Netflix subscriptions, business will thrive. Billionaires will still be billionaires and the Jeffrey Bezos and Elon Musks can continue to shoot their
penises rockets into the moon.
Even if you adamantly believe that your job could never be fully replaced by a machine because of that intangible human factor, you have to at least acknowledge that parts of your job could be automated. Which means that at some point, the Capitalist Overlords or Job Creators (whichever term you prefer) will realize they can pay less money. And anybody who thinks that increasing the minimum wage is enough to staunch the wound is as much a victim of head-in-the-ground thinking as those coal miners.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter. Now I have to get back to my day job. I’ve only got a few more years before Wall-E replaces me.
* I’m using the term “living wage”, but I understand it might be better termed a universal basic income. But the UBI that has recently been proposed in the US by people like Andrew Yang has always fallen short of what I’m talking about. I mean a true living wage, i.e., not just a bare minimum, but something that allows for people to do whatever they like (say, for instance, a decade-long travel project). Your “wage” is what you “earn” simply by being alive and producing whatever you produce.