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Boldt: SB 5905 & “The rise of the Luddite Democrats”

Jim Boldt, President of Duckabush Communications/Public Affairs, wrote the following commentary for the Wire about SB 5095.

Ports Should Not Purchase Automated Cargo Handling Equipment?


Senator Saldaña and her colleagues want to demand that the ports of Washington State never use advanced technology to load and unload cargo. Ports are not to mechanize and strive for efficiencies that would make them competitive with world markets.

Washington is a “trade-dependent” state. The Ports of Seattle and Tacoma are huge economic engines in the metro area and beyond.

What’s next from the group of Neo-Luddites, return to a no-email world of letters and postage? Let’s pull the robots out of Amazon fulfillment centers or Boeing’s manufacturing processes. Or, if we really want to crowd and slow down our ports, lets outlaw cargo containers; the containers themselves. Let’s load everything with old cranes, by hand, one at a time. Ah, back to the 1950s.

SB 5905 would prohibit the purchase, by a port, of fully automated cargo handling equipment. Can’t do it, not even remotely. Every piece of equipment has to have a human operating it. 

SB 5905 is not a slippery slope, it is a road to Hell.

Ironic and interesting that Washington legislators want to limit technology when their counterparts at the national level demand that technology can replace a border wall. Anyway.

Luddites on the Rise

The Luddites were a secret, oath-based organization of English textile workers in the 19th century, where a radical faction destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest. 

In 1811-1816, the British group was protesting against the use of machinery in a “fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste, as machines would replace their role in the industry.

It is a misconception that the Luddites protested against the machinery itself in an attempt to halt the progress of technology. Over time, however, the term has come to mean one opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization, or new technologies in general.

No, I don’t think Saldaña and her Neo-Luddites will charge the ports and bash the remote control consoles of the cranes.

Research from McKinsey found that 45 percent of current jobs can be automated. The Legislature should do what it can to help create a real solution to help displaced workers.

They can’t simply put a stop to technology innovation. Bans often create worse situations.

A Realistic Solution, Not a 20th Century Statutory Revolt

OpenAI is a non-profit artificial intelligence (AI) research organization that aims to promote and develop friendly AI in such a way as to benefit humanity as a whole. Elon Musk of Tesla and battery fame leads the group.

The participants are motivated, in part, by concerns about existential risk from artificial general intelligence. This 2019 legislature is not shy about introducing bills that will require all sorts and shapes of commissions, special offices, advisory groups and any other additional function of government.

Why not do something realistic? Why not stop sending a signal that Washington legislators have gone off the cliff and are prepared to statutorily bash the digital equipment?

If we need a formal group of policy makers, industry, and labor folks to sit down and produce yet one more commission report that no one will pay any attention to, then let’s do it. But prohibiting innovation for prohibition and fear’s sake only is wrong thinking.

The Literature: It’s Already Here

A few years ago, I started studying AI and robotics. Not time or room here to share even my elementary understanding, but I will wager you have no idea how deeply AI and the physical application via robotics have permeated our economy and social fiber.

“Alexa, are you a robot?”

 My favorite journal to date is Jerry Kaplan’s “Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.” Kaplan warns that the transition may be protracted and brutal unless we address the two great scourges of the modern developed world: volatile labor markets and income inequality.

He proposes innovative, free-market adjustments to our economic system and social policies to avoid an extended period of social turmoil. I would propose that his analysis of the promise and perils of artificial intelligence is a guide for business leaders and policy makers on both sides of the aisle.

It ain’t pretty folks, but we can’t get there standing in front of a train, which, frankly, has already left the station.

Lead, Don’t Follow

If Washington is a trade-dependent state, an innovator, a crucible for technology and it’s applications, let’s act like it. A lot of humans will be hurt and restricted by technology. No borders and/or tariffs can stop the creep of AI and dislocation of humans.

But the Legislature could be the first to seriously and realistically address the impact of AI on working folks at the state level, then share their model with those less enlightened. Don’t join the Neo-Luddites with head-in-sand wastes of time.

If It’s Yellow, Quakes and Has Webbed Feet

Karl Marx warned us, “The instrument of labor, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman [person]…”

When, not if, we get to driver-less container trucks and cranes and ships, it will be important that, years earlier, we crafted a plan. And it can’t be war.

In SB 5905, “fully automated cargo handling equipment” means equipment that is remotely operated or remotely monitored, with or without the exercise of human intervention or control.” Yes, with or without.