The Next Inconvenient Truth: Robots Are Coming For Your Job
But the forecast for an automated future doesn’t have to be apocalyptic.
An army of robots has already marched into factories around the world, replacing human workers with dazzling efficiency and inexhaustible productivity. Initially, many experts assumed that while most menial, physical labor might be addressed by technology solutions, certain creative or highly skilled jobs were unlikely to be taken by our robot overlords.
That assumption is rapidly changing. Conservative estimates from the McKinsey Global Institute indicate that by 2055, nearly half of the world’s jobs will be replaced by automation. That pace could be accelerated by one very important advancement that’s a wild card in the future of automation. Artificial intelligence.
AI is transforming the landscape of technology at an unprecedented pace and its applications are vast and far reaching. While we have an idea of what garden variety automation did to the economy during the industrial revolution, there is no handbook for where artificial intelligence might take us. We’ve accelerated the pace of AI by providing robots with access to the internet and its vast treasure trove of data to be mined. Because robots are now capable of learning and decision making, their ability to automate even creative processes appears imminent. And that leaves us with one very important question.
What Does The Future Of Work Look Like?
Despite these dire warnings, we aren’t suddenly falling off a cliff into this automated future. Our economy has been steadily marching towards it for some time. In the last decade, the rise of the remote worker and the growing gig economy have transformed how companies around the world structure work. The emphasis has shifted from traditional careers to valued technical or creative skills, enabling highly qualified freelancers to handle an increasing portion of projects.
Michael Solomon, the founder of 10x Management, spoke to Rantt recently about the future of work. His team specializes in curating freelance tech talent for some of the most innovative companies in the world and he sees the gig economy as a stop on the journey towards a world without work.
“Our recent realization is that it is actually just the rest stop on the highway between the employed world we’ve resided in for the past century or so and the post-labor world we’re rapidly heading toward. Net job loss as a result of automation and artificial intelligence/machine learning is coming soon. How our society prepares for these changes will determine if we’re heading into an apocalyptic transition or a civilized one.”
Thus far, automated processes have focused on replacing jobs in the manufacturing sector. But advances in artificial intelligence mean opportunity for automation will explode into many new industries over the course of the next decade.
As artificial intelligence advances, workers will need to focus on specialized skill sets to provide value to employers. Eventually, even highly skilled workers won’t be safe from the effects of job automation. And when that occurs we’ll need to have a plan for what happens next.
Are We Prepared For A World Without Work?
In a nutshell, no. The United States, in particular, is not well positioned to cope with the massive impending job losses that will occur as a result of increased automation. While other countries have moved towards strategies like universal healthcare and basic income, the current administration has refused to even entertain the idea that job automation poses risk for our immediate economic future.
“In terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs, I think we’re so far away from that that it’s not even on my radar screen. I think it’s 50 or 100 more years.”
While this administration focuses on reviving dead-end jobs in manufacturing and coal, other US companies like 10x Management have recognized the difficulties we face in the near future from automation compounded by dwindling numbers of available tech talent. And they are beginning to sound the alarm and demand action.
This doomsday economist forecast, compounded by a shortage of tech talent, has forced companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook to step into the political fray. Corporate activism on healthcare, the travel ban, and the H-1B visa problem reflect a growing realization that some policies are necessary to avoid collapse and chaos as our country transitions into the gig economy.
To anticipate a future without work, we need to look closely at what having a traditional job currently provides. Income, healthcare, and a sense of purpose all rank high on the list of benefits that would need to be immediately addressed in the absence of standard employment. And while we’ve made some strides in discussions about how to provide all citizens of this country with healthcare, options for supplying income and a sense purpose have been trickier to quantify.
Basic Income Is About More Than a Handout
Much of the discussion about basic income has revolved around the concept as a solution to increasing levels of poverty and the welfare-state in America, but it’s also one of the ways we could effectively address a future without work. Unconditional basic income (sometimes referred to as guaranteed universal income) would give a fixed amount of money to each resident to be used in whatever way they would like. This cash infusion comes without conditions and is delivered to all individuals.
Pilot programs have sprung up around the world that employ some variation of basic income in Brazil, Finland, Switzerland, and Kenya. Alaska already has a version of UBI called the Alaskan Permanent Fund, which subsidizes lost revenues from the oil industry. Recently, Democrat Chris Lee introduced a measure that would make Hawaii the first state to run a government-sponsored basic income pilot on US soil.
Arguments against the idea of basic income take the form you might anticipate. Supplying people with large amounts of cash, no strings attached, will lead to lazy, unemployed riffraff who spend the majority of their days in a drug-induced haze. But according to basic income pilots conducted in Canada and Africa, that’s actually the opposite of what occurs. Studies show that when given a source of income, people tend to invest in education and housing, driving up graduation rates and home ownership. In Manitoba, employment among working age men fell just 1% after implementation of basic income.
Contrary to what you might expect, the concept of basic income enjoys widespread, bipartisan support among economists who agree it’s a simpler welfare system and could reduce costs associated with healthcare. Figures for basic income are around $10,000 per person annually and would require a significant increase in taxes, but might ultimately result in greater economic growth and a higher standard of living for all. And in a world without work, it could be a lifeline to people suddenly displaced by automation, preventing chaos from unprecedented numbers of unemployed.
What Do We Do Now?
Despite the panic and uncertainty that increased job automation inspires, a world without work has a positive, long-term outcome. Imagine a future where universal healthcare was the norm, basic income pays the rent, and you have the flexibility to choose when and how you’d like to be productive. Instead of holding down a job to ensure a paycheck that puts food on the table for your family, you might be able to invest your time in your passions. Experts agree it could usher in a new era of creativity that inspires unprecedented innovation and a better quality of life.
But to get there, we’ll need to prepare for the transition and the first step is acknowledging that the gig economy is here to stay, Relying on traditional, salaried positions that provide employer-funded healthcare to the majority of Americans is not a feasible long-term plan. Refusing to acknowledge rising poverty levels and job loss will not make the need for basic income go away. Our best bet in a future without work is to leave the labor to the robots and start thinking about how to engineer a successful transition into a fully automated world.
Read about The Future of Work or Visit A Day Without Labor to learn more.