While people have been fussing and fretting about the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its almost certain and inevitable destruction of life on this earth, a new study just released shows that automation in the workplace has already been killing us. Turns out we’ve been worrying about AI for nothing. By the time Artificial Intelligence is smart enough to figure out how to kill us all, we will already be dead thanks to the dumber robotic cousins that proceeded it. 

Silly Artificial Intelligence. Turns out it is not the smarty pants it was cracked up to be.

The study just published claims to have found a link between automation of U.S. manufacturing and an increased mortality rate among working-class adults. It points out that automation is partially responsible for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs, with an estimated loss of 420,000 to 750,000 jobs during the 1990s and 2000s. Most of those lost jobs were in the manufacturing sector.

The researchers “tracked U.S. industries transitioning to automation between 1993 and 2007.” They then compared those data points with U.S. death-certificate data over the same time period. This allowed them to estimate the mortality rate of working-age adults in those counties and how they died.

The study reports that “for every industrial robot per 1,000 workers, there were about 8 more deaths per every 100,000 males between 45 to 54. There were also 4 additional deaths per 100,000 females in the same age group.” They also found the data showed an elevated increase in suicides among middle-aged men. 

They went on to associate the advent of workplace automation with a 12% increase in drug overdose mortality among working-age adults. 

But they weren’t done there. They also claim that there was evidence of lost jobs and lower wages, caused by automation, linking to an increase in murder, cancer, and heart disease.

We should pause to point out that this research was conducted by those fun-loving capitalism embracing Sociology Professors at Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. I recognize I may be showing a tad bit of bias, and these people may indeed be fun-loving capitalism enthusiasts. It is just that my experience in college was that the Sociology professors were anything but fun. Or loving. And they didn’t exactly embrace Capitalism. In my memory, they seemed to hate just about everything. In fact, the only thing I recall them wholly embracing was their superior intellect and unbridled contempt for the rest of the world.

Perhaps that is just my perception. But I digress…

Still, it seems somewhat simplistic to look at the onset of robotics and automation and mechanically correlate an increased death rate as the direct result. I don’t know, maybe we could look at other factors; perhaps the decrease of educational quality and the lowering of proficiency test results in public schools might be a factor. The massive increase in consumption of processed foods, perhaps. The advent of social media and the commensurate reduction in social skills and human interaction. All may have a tad bit of an influence here. 

Oh, and there seemed to have been a little kerfuffle related to opioids during that study window as well. While the authors included drug overdoses in the study and directly tied it to automation in the workplace, I suspect that there were other factors at play they failed to consider in that context.

Finally, the fun-loving sociologists conclude that the “uptick in deaths” is due to the inability of people to have an affordable income. They say governments with resources such as social safety net programs, higher minimum wages, and “limited access to prescription opioid programs can weaken the effects of automation on people’s health.”

We can’t argue with that, except for the myopic view that ignores other educational and social shortcomings we also see as trends across the same period of study. 

The senior author of the study was quoted as saying, “Our findings underscore the importance of public policy in supporting the individuals and communities who have lost their jobs or seen their wages cut due to automation. A strong social safety net and labor market policies that improve the quality of jobs available to workers without a college degree may help reduce deaths of despair and strengthen the general health of communities, particularly those in our nation’s industrial heartland.”

OK, sure. Good point. But in addition to strong labor market policies, perhaps we need to look toward training for marketable skills at the educational level. Perhaps we could encourage the growth of vocational training and technical schools. Maybe the solution isn’t always going to be strong government policy; but instead, a community that recognizes the issues may be much broader than this study would indicate.

The good news is, there is a chance that Artificial Intelligence will come along and figure that out for us. As long as it doesn’t spend too much time studying Sociology. After all, no one likes an artificially intelligent curmudgeon. 

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