Record of a Spaceborn Few: Robots and job displacement
Recommendation: Make some quiet time to read this Hugo nominee and pay attention to the subtle subtext of job displacement.
Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third installment of the Wayfarers series and a 2019 Hugo nominee for best novel. Becky Chambers has created the science fiction equivalent of Friends, Seinfeld, or Cheers; there’s not a lot of action but lots of people (and aliens and AIs) to savor getting to know and love. While her first book, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, did have more overt action- bad aliens potentially threatening the multi-species denizens of a nice gate construction ship, A Closed and Common Orbit and her latest, Record of a Spaceborn Few, tug more on the heartstrings. Remember Lois McMaster Bujold’s Memory? And the surprise at realizing how much you cared about Simon Illyan, a minor character up to that point? Chambers is the new Bujold, where the action doesn’t matter so much as the people and how they cope with life.
In Record of a Spaceborn Few, now my favorite of the Wayfarers series (which I say after each one), the Exodus Fleet of generation ships, having fled from a collapsing Earth ecosystem, has caught up with the rest of humanity who has since leapfrogged ahead with first contact, new alien advances, and general assimilation into a diverse web of planets, species, and high technology.
But in the meantime, the Exodans have developed a culture with rich traditions and a pragmatic socialism necessary to live for hundreds of years in the same ships. Socialism works for them. Their ceremonies of burial and birth are far better than anything Deeprak Chopra has put together. But the fleet has now caught up with the rest of humanity and aliens. Their ships are aging, there is new technology available, and they have to change to survive. They also know that they have to change because trying not to change is always a bad mistake for a group of people. The trick is how much...
It’s as far from Robert Heinlein’s classic generation ship story Universe as one can get: No mutations, no loss of purpose, everyone knows the history and origins of the Exodus, the journey has ended, and it's a fleet, not a single ship. The tension in Universe is “will they get the ship back on track to reach the destination?” while the tension in Record of a Spaceborn Few is “can these nice people keep their culture going in the face of change now that they have reached their destination?” How can the new technologies help the aging Fleet replenish and repair ships? Will too much technology destroy their culture? Will the rebellious teenagers stay now that they have a way to actually leave? Should non-Fleet members be allowed to become citizens? These become literally existential questions for the characters and the Fleet to solve.
It doesn’t sound like a robot book, does it? And it’s not. Except that one of the many challenges the Exodus Fleet encounters is job displacement due to robots. Given the Exodus Fleet is aging, the spaceborn can’t afford to be like the Amish and reject new technology; they need the new technology to keep the ships in repair- literally to not die- not just to improve the standard of living. The robots are coming, and even the most simple longshoreman types of robots will take away jobs from a society where everyone had a job and a purpose.
In the real world, the issue of job displacement is real. A 2015 study by the consulting firm, McKinsey see https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/four-fundamentals-of-workplace-automation, argues that 45% of current jobs could be automated. 45%. Like almost half.
Previously the argument had been that automation actually increased jobs overall. Locals lost the jobs being automated but other people gained different, often better paying, jobs to keep the robots going. Martin Ford took these analyses and created a bestseller in his very dark book, Rise of the Robots, arguing that this time instead of job displacement, AI and robots will truly replace jobs, that there won’t be other jobs for displaced workers to go to. Many roboticists feel this is overly optimistic and that Rise of the Robots is yet another instance of the Substitution Myth, where people assume that a robot can do the job a human does in exactly the same way with no changes throughout the organization.
One solution to job displacement from robots is to tax robots (and AI) and use the proceeds to fund a universal basic income, where everyone gets enough money to live on. In theory, losing a job will be a good thing as workers would become self-actualized, free of the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and thus happy and creative. WIRED has a nice summary here of how this has become the intellectual rage in Silicon Valley. The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari has a counter argument in the New York Times. I love his quote: “... Silicon Valley is so excited about the concept of universal basic income, or stipends paid to people regardless of whether they work. The message is: 'We don’t need you. But we are nice, so we’ll take care of you.’ “
Not a great message for encouraging a stable society.
Do robots replace jobs? Sure. Does the introduction of robots create more jobs? Currently the answer is yes and roboticists seem to believe that the answer will stay yes. Does it suck to be the person whose job is replaced? Definitely. Will universal basic income be the solution to make everyone happy? Hmmmm.
Record of a Spaceborn Few imagines that it won’t be. Even in a society that already has a universal basic income, Chambers envisions that displaced workers will be sad and stressed at the loss of their identity and work that they enjoyed. But in the Exodus Fleet, they accept assignments to other jobs, generally less desirable jobs, without much fuss. The key enabler for their acceptance is that the impacted spaceborn few can see that their loss contributes to the overall betterment of everyone in the fleet. A recent accident in the fleet emphasizes how threadbare the ships are. They don’t have to lose their homes or standard of living or move, just change jobs and routines, and there is safety to gain.
Back in the real world, it is often not clear that robots benefit anyone beyond the shareholders of the company applying the robots. Ah, such is the downside of Milton Friedman’s stakeholder theory declaring that the shareholders in a company are the only stakeholders, certainly not the employees or the public. A cold comfort to know that, in theory, the betterment of the corporation shareholders will— eventually—lead to the betterment of the larger Public. Especially if you’re the one who doesn’t have the programming training or skills to compete with a new hire in computer science, can’t sell the house because everyone else in town is laid off, and even the “May I take your order, please?" jobs have moved to another state.
The solution? I’m not sure, but in the meantime immerse yourself in Record of a Spaceborn Few and enjoy the company of decent people trying to do right by themselves, family, and friends in a world even more complicated than ours. And take comfort in how the Exodans are succeeding.
If you want to learn more about the Substitution Myth, check out the RTSF review of Futureworld, the follow up the Westworld movie. If you want to learn more about robots and job displacement, that’s a hot topic on the internet and a quick search can find dozens of articles from business magazines.