On Automation & Health

Take a look at your current job.  Can what you’re doing be replaced by a source code cooked up by someone 1 espresso shy of chronic hypertension?   Well chances are that your tasks will be handled by some sort of automated system.  Heck, two computer scientists from Oxford conducted a meta-analysis using US Department of Labor data to analyze which sort of tasks and jobs will end up being automated in the next 20 years, and spat out a figure to a tune of 45% back in September, 2013.

Meet the competition

Before we dive into this issue and its impacts, let’s also remind ourselves that in order to produce that 45% percent figure, assumptions had to be made.  Not just minor assumptions, but glaring, “I’m OJ Simpson’s Jury” kind of gaping plot-holes.  First, the researchers took what is possibly the fastest possible rate of computerization possible.  Their scenario does not account for political backlash, nor can it account for the possibility that physical labor is more affordable than initial investment on computers.  Furthermore, they only looked at 9 variables of human work such as finger dexterity and originality.  But for the sake of this piece, lets just assume that this were to be true.  That in 2025, about 40% of our jobs will be automated.  Would this be a triumph for public health? A detriment?

– Occupational Hazards –
Let’s face it.  If there exists a way to die, someone out there probably has already tried it. I still have a bet going that someone’s heart will literally melt if they watch “Frozen” 18 times in a row.  In any case, this is especially true about occupational hazards.  Stories like death by nail gun, falling off a roof, and others like this are common place in the news every other day.  Surprisingly enough, our good ol’ Bureau of Labor Statistics attributes just under 4500 deaths directly caused by occupation in 2013. So unless you’re Buster Keaton, chances are that no matter how stupid you are on the job, work place safety measures and policy are pretty good at keeping you alive and kicking in time for the next Marvel movie.

So worth it

However, it’s only instant deaths that your local 12 year old touts about during his/her Call of Duty sessions in the garage.  Let’s not forget about the more indirect deaths caused by workers exposed to toxins at work.  Coal miners, chemical plants, all of these workplaces have employees at risk of developing chronic diseases due to close working proximity to some chemical or compound.  When this is taken into account the number looks anywhere as low as 60,000 annually to a max of 850,000.  That’s a lot of lives at risk.  Now, the reason why we have such a big range is because Environmental Health sciences have always been a hodgepodge of various opinions and study methodology.   If the field of study was a person, it’d be one part Dr. House, one part Dr. Strangelove, and a dash of Dr. Oz.   A paranoid genius that sees everything, no matter how menial, as a source of death with one of its hands dipped in the honey pot of industry money.   Not only that, but imagine being the scientist trying to figure out how sitting in a chair from 9-5 in front of a computer is the indirect cause of death, and you can begin to see why looking at chronic diseases is the equivalent of running a marathon without your big toe.  Oh and there’s also the fact the less than 2% of the chemicals used in factories have been tested for carcinogenicity.  That too.

I digress, much like how we ran with the assumption that 45% of jobs are automated, lets also run with the assumption that this 60,000 to 850,000 range is also true.  Automation could be a huge win for public health.  We could curb our 7% rate of occupational cancer, and bring down the deaths.  Not only that, but we would save loads of both federal and private spending on studies to demonstrate the safety of the rest of the 98% of chemicals we use daily in our manufacturing.  Because aside from the Terminator, robots are great at their job and usually don’t really need to develop any emotional attachment.  It seems like automation is a win-win for the lives of the common American public!

“I’m up for review at HR…it’s not looking good”

– The Healthy Worker Effect –
Or……not so much.  Much like that free chipotle burrito coupon you’ve received recently, there’s always a caveat.  In the case of that burrito coupon, I’ll refer you to my plumber, Mike.

Now there are two ways of looking at this.  The more technical definition of the “Healthy Worker Effect” is a description of a statistical anomaly.  However, what I’m talking about is more of the effect that working has upon the health of an individual in general.   Now you’ve probably heard of the notion that retiring earlier runs counter to living a longer and full life.   Heck here’s my google search result for the issue and pretty much ever article is just giving you a fancier way of saying “I really don’t know, I think so, don’t quote me on it, don’t tell your mom I said that to you”.

My colon had a beautiful death

But one thing is absolutely certain.  Employees benefit from employer provided health insurance.  Here is an article from the Kaiser Foundation behind the distribution of employer covered insurance and how much employees pay.  I’m offering it to you earlier because it’s a huge statistical bombshell with way too much data to cite source by source.  In the world of public health policy, this data was the Kim Kardashian “break the internet” equivalent.   Though with more bar graphs than actual curves.

Healthcare is 1/3 of our national spending, for a good reason.  We like living longer and more people are now able to afford the care.   Even the World Health Organization sees healthcare and health insurance as a human right.  When almost 150 million (see that Kaiser study) Americans rely on their work as not only a source of income to pay for healthcare, but also the source of their health insurance packages, you begin to see why being employed is a vital facet of being healthy.

Okay fine, here’s some actual science

But it’s tough to figure out the disparity between the lives saved from automation, and the potential lives lost due to lack of sufficient healthcare coverage.   If anything, automation seems to be a case for more federalized or universal healthcare.  Even that assumption will draw opposition simply due to the huge variety of studies, opinions, and data from health science.  Above all, its tough for me to state anything concrete about this matter, simply due to the sheer amount of hours needed to conduct a proper meta-analysis on this issue, and the fact that we’re not even sure if automation is for certain.

This is still a new topic, and this health issue is just one of the many finer points of the elephant in the room.  The onset of AI and how it will disrupt the function of our very anthropogenic society is still a big question.  But until then, Siri and I still have a movie date on Saturday.  She’s buying.  I’m broke from paying for healthcare.


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