In my driving work I occasionally visit the massive warehouses that are springing up around the country known as RDCs (Regional Distribution Centres). These are incredibly impressive, huge, cathedrals to consumerism. Built on a scale that is hard to comprehend, especially up close, they can be overwhelming the first time you visit.
When you get inside they are full, floor to ceiling, of whatever products the centre is distributing. The products are stacked on massive shelves which are accessed by various combinations gantry mounted pulleys and manned fork lifts. Even these are increasingly automated with the result that an eerily small number of staff can be responsible for the whole thing.
In fact even as a driver you just open the truck’s rear doors, reverse up to one of the loading bays, a red light comes on on the wall of the RDC, the shutter door on the warehouse opens, you feel fork lifts moving in and out of the back of your truck, then the light turns green, you pull forward to close the doors, and off you go. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was interested and went inside to have a look I needn’t have had any contact with anyone during the whole process.
Some of my other driving jobs involve providing the materials for the glass and steel office structures that we are still allowing to reshape our city centres. I was struck the other day by the increasing similarities between the cathedrals of consumerism and these cathedrals of bureaucracy. In both we are seeing the onward march of automated processes that take what used to be human labour and trim them down to the maximum repeatable efficiency. Skeleton staff who oversee the process, and radically reduced interchange with the outside world.
The capabilities of AI and automation are currently being oversold and are underdelivering, like every other technology that has preceded them. But it is clear that as more of our day to day work takes place in entirely digital environments the prospects for systems learning from our patterns and replicating them increases by the day. Add to this the fact that once the essential patterns are understood the inessential stuff can be trimmed away, and much of the current bureaucratic business that currently employs the bulk of the middle class disappears.
We need to start thinking about what we all do when that happens…