Chit Happens

I lost my chit recently. No, that’s not a typo. Although to be fair, I have seen people lose their shit over losing their chit. And the truth is I didn’t really lose it. It’s just no longer good chit. Who really wants chit that’s no good? For the uninitiated, chits are, in this case, pieces of metal with an employee’s name stamped on them. Chits are then exchanged for keys as one enters and leaves a secure facility such as the prison I work in. Since keys and locks are somewhat important in a prison, chits have great value and losing one throws a little damper on one’s effectiveness as an employee. Chits are also a great source of bad puns.

But chits have become as useful at my job as a 5 ¼ floppy disc punch and for a similar reason… advances in technology. For nine years, my morning routine has been the same. I put my chit in a drawer and an officer had to figure out which cabinet had my specific key ring and accompanying chain, get my keys, and put them in the drawer for me to retrieve. Every time I left the building, the operation was reversed. Things got particularly crazy during shift changes when thirty or forty people were entering or leaving the building at the same time. The security drawer filled up with so many keys, chains and chits that tangles, mix-ups, and a stuck drawer raised everyone’s stress level as they tried to clock in or out. And if there was only one person handing out keys instead of two, the tension was palpable.

But those days are gone. Like so many other things in life, the decreasing price of computer chips allowed my company to replace a human with a machine. Computer chips are already so cheap that you can buy a birthday card with a chip in it that sings some silly song. That chip probably has more computing power than was in the Apollo spacecraft. And as soon as the battery dies, we throw the card and chip away. Computer chips are finding their way into more and more of our lives in ways both subtle and overt. If Dr. Neal Degrasse Tyson’s predictions come true (The Future Physics), chip technology will someday surround us like silk around a caterpillar.

In my case, I now come in, put my finger on a print scanner, punch in a number, and the right cabinet opens for me. A red light highlights the proper key ring for me to remove. The key chain, cause of much frustration in the past, is now my responsibility. An added benefit, from the company’s viewpoint, is that the keys, and therefore employees, are now trackable. This new system represents quite a cost savings. First, it eliminates at least one employee and secondly the possibility of losing a set of keys. Lost keys can cost a heck of a lot of money if all of the locks have to be rekeyed and new key rings made.

My two regular readers are probably wondering, “What’s the point?” This change is a rather mundane and unexciting observation. It’s not as if HAL or Kryton are now handing out keys. The point, I think, is that the AI revolution is not going to happen all at once or in some spectacular fashion. SKYNET can only occur after we, as consumers, have purchased and inserted enough computing power in our homes to calculate the GDP for the next millennia.

And I’m not just worried about the jobs lost, it’s also the new job skills required to stay in jobs that don’t disappear or get outsourced. Exhibit A is that the biggest problem with our new system is that some employees put their keys in the wrong slot, even though the proper slot is emanating a red light. Once a key set is in the wrong slot, only the locksmith can remove it. Employees who can’t handle this new task, either because they are color-blind or mentally challenged, will lose their jobs. And the locksmith for the facility now has a whole new set of computer skills he has to acquire in order to maintain the system. If he or she can’t learn these new skills, then they will be out of work as well.

The profit motive behind capitalism is driving the rapid advances of new technologies and their insertion into our lives. Nobody can stop this ride without wrecking our entire societal structure. Nobody can retrieve these jobs that disappear without rejecting modern civilization. Like elevator operators, these jobs are gone for good. Because of the economics of new technology, more jobs are always lost than gained with each new adoption. How we must adapt as a society to these new economic realities is one of the greatest challenges facing STEM students today. Good luck with that.