Companies working with artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies are expected to benefit dramatically from the big changes automation will bring to the world of work. Workers themselves, on the other hand, could be facing a future of unemployment and poverty. To ensure humans still have a place in the workforce of tomorrow, Google has established the Grow with Google initiative.
As company CEO Sundar Pichai explained during yesterday’s Grow with Google announcement event in Pittsburgh, PA, Google plans to distribute $1 billion over the next five years to nonprofits that specialize in training workers and helping new businesses get off the ground.
$10 million from the fund has already been committed to Goodwill. The company plans to use that money to implement the Goodwill Digital Career Accelerator, which aims to prepare members of the American workforce for jobs that require a high level of technological know-how.
Google will also embark upon a tour of the U.S., visiting libraries and community organizations to dish out training sessions and career advice as part of a commitment to deliver one million hours of employee volunteering over the span of the project.
Google isn’t the only tech giant investing a significant amount of money in programs to ensure that people are ready for the jobs that will be available in the coming years.
In May 2017, Apple announced plans to set up a $1 billion fund to help foster manufacturing roles in the U.S., and the company also has plans to fund coding workshops. Microsoft also recently announced their TechSpark program to help prepare for workers for coming economic changes by improving their digital skills and computer literacy.
Automation isn’t guaranteed to devastate the workforce, but it is almost certain to disrupt it. The benefits of the technology are simply too great to ignore, so companies are going to want to implement it whenever possible. Thanks to the likes of Google, we have the opportunity to train the people most likely to be affected by this change, thereby ensuring that nobody gets left behind in this new era of automation.
More and more experts agree that the world job market is in for a disruption that is unprecedented, or at least that hasn’t been seen since the Industrial Revolution. In a decade or so, automation born from artificial intelligence (AI) development is expected to take over jobs in a number of industries — from transportation to manufacturing, finance, and even information technology. To prepare for job displacement, particularly those considered to be minimum income work, some experts have been advocating for a universal basic income.
In the face of the looming intelligent automation and political threats against economic development—such as growing resistance against globalism—Kim warned that the world is following a “crash course.”
“If your aspirations start to rise but then there’s no opportunity it can lead to fragility, conflict, violence,” Kim explained to the BBC. “This is the crash course we’re going down.” Hence, there’s a need to create more opportunities for people, which starts by investing on human capital. This marks a change in the World Bank’s development approach.
Automation and Human Jobs
It’s normal for any meaningful development to have a good and bad side, and automation is a product of how good technology has become. AI has given birth to autonomous systems that will let cars, ships, and even planes operate themselves more safely, or run stores and factories more cost-effectively. Then, of course, as machines get better at doing work human beings used to do, it becomes more efficient to “hire” them instead.
Many have chosen to look at this intelligent automation with gloomy expectations, but some see a potential for humankind to progress. Google chief engineer and famous “future teller” Ray Kurzweil said that automation would give rise to new jobs—professions which haven’t been invented yet, he said. Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk said something similar, noting how automation would give humanity more time to pursue leisure.
In any case, both ideas seem to agree with the World Bank president’s point: to prepare for automation, one has to invest in people. “The one thing you know for sure that you’ll need, in whatever the economy looks like in the future, is people who can learn,” Kim told the BBC. “We want to create a sense of urgency to invest in people that we think is necessary given the way […] the global economy is changing.”
Automation will happen—in fact, it’s already begun. The only thing we can do now is to make sure humankind is ready to accept the new economy it will bring. What’s clear is that humanity’s ingenuity will surely find a way to cope.
There are growing concerns that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will slowly take more jobs away from people as they are further developed and become more complex. A recent study from Redwood Software and Sapio Research seems to support these worries, revealing that information technology (IT) leaders believe nearly 60 percent of businesses can be automated within the next five years. That’s much higher and sooner than The University of Oxford’s prediction saying at least 47 percent of jobs were at risk of automation in the coming decades, according to TechRepublic.
500 IT leaders evenly split between the US and the UK were surveyed, and in addition to the aforementioned percentage, an average of 70 percent said robotics have become more of a priority in the last year. The U.S. alone has already invested over $700 billion in robotics stocks, and the study shows the U.S. is more accepting of the change than the UK.
“There is no question that the US is currently the world leader in robotics automation. From heavy manufacturing to retail giants to tech innovators, the US has implemented automation solution and is seeking others,” says Redwood Software President Dennis Walsh. “While the UK has shown an openness to adopt the same automation mindset, it still lags in the US. Post-Brexit, UK companies may need to up their game in automation in order to remain competitive with their US, European and global competitors.”
Highs and Lows
There are benefits to incorporating robotics into the workforce, of course, such as a reduction in manual labor, less mundane work, and an increased speed with which jobs are completed. However, it also brings with it an increased risk to security and the price of its implementation and maintenance. That’s all before the possibility of automation leading to a workless future for society.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a choice,” said Musk on UBI back in February. “I think it’s going to be necessary. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.”
Automation isn’t decades away from happening. It’s not something we can simply ignore until a more appropriate time. Automation, however slowly, is happening now, and real discussions need to be held as more people accept its existence and impact. Much like AI, Automation can be a incredibly beneficial if adopted and used correctly.
A recent report asserts that the artificial intelligence (AI) industry will reach a compound annual growth rate of 17.2 percent by 2023. The market is set to swell to a whopping $14.2 billion over the next six years, up from just $525 million in 2015.
Natural language processing technology is set to be a huge contributor to this growth. This tech is being adopted rapidly, particularly by financial institutions, because it can carry out customer service transactions and answer common questions in the place of human employees.
As for geography, North America is expected hold the majority of the AI industry’s market share by 2023, but Europe and the Asia-Pacific region will see significant growth thanks to the rapid pace of urbanization in some areas, increasing use of smartphones, and robust automotive sectors.
The Time Is Now
Inevitably, any transition away from human labor could result in fewer jobs. The big question is whether AI and automation can produce enough new jobs to ensure that the people being replaced aren’t left unemployed.
While we still have reasons to be optimistic that AI and automation could create jobs rather than just take them away, that’s not likely to happen organically — we need to make some big societal changes to ensure the benefits of AI outweigh the negatives.
These changes might mean some sort of adjustment to academic curriculum that takes into account the types of jobs that students are likely to hold 10 years from now. Universal basic income (UBI)could also be the answer, giving citizens a way to ensure their basic needs are met even after they are no longer needed at their job.
AI and automation are no longer the wave of the future — the technology is already here, and these systems are being implemented more broadly than even before. The world of work is changing, and the way society functions needs to change along with it.
In a new blog post published on the company’s website this week, they reveal their plans to pick 3,000 individuals from two states at random to receive a monthly cash handout. 1,000 participants will receive $1,000 per month for a period up to five years, while the other 2,000 will receive $50 per month, serving as the control group.
“A randomized trial is considered one of the best ways to evaluate the impact of a proposed social policy,” wrote research director Elizabeth Rhodes. “By comparing a group of people who receive a basic income to an otherwise identical group of people who do not, we can isolate and quantify the effects of a basic income.”
This study will draw on lessons learned from the one-year project that Y Combinator recently carried out in Oakland. The sample size used in that experiment was too small to offer up the desired insights into UBI, but its goal was primarily to establish the proper procedure for this large-scale trial.
Show Me the Money
Y Combinator hopes to find out how basic income can help people respond to economic instability and uncertainty, or perhaps even find alternatives to UBI that achieve the same purpose. The overarching goal of this trial is to advance the debate about the future of work.
Despite this support, however, UBI isn’t the kind of policy that can be put into place without extensive testing. Other trials are already in the works in countries like Scotland, Canada, and Finland, and unlike Y Combinator’s study, those projects have government support.
With millions of people at risk of unemployment due to advancing technology, any and all potential solutions to keep these people above the poverty line are worth considering.
The desire for a higher wage is pretty self explanatory. However, the impact a minimum wage increase could have on society is not so clear.
In an effort to shed light on this subject, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) conducted a study, and they’ve concluded that a minimum wage hike might not necessarily lead to happier workers. In fact, it could lead to fewer workers as such an increase has historically resulted in the loss of more jobs to automation.
For this study, authors Grace Lordan of the London School of Economics and David Neumark of the University of California, Irvine looked at minimum wage changes in the United States from 1980 to 2015. They realized that these changes affected the number of so-called “low-skill” or minimum wage jobs — such as packing boxes or using sewing machines — in various industries in the country.
In other words, if a wage hike meant it would cost more to hire a human to do a job than it would to have a machine do it, employers often chose the machine.
“Based on [current population survey] data from 1980-2015, we find that increasing the minimum wage decreases significantly the share of automatable employment held by low-skilled workers, and increases the likelihood that low-skilled workers in automatable jobs become unemployed,” the authors wrote in the paper’s abstract.
The researchers determined that a $1 minimum wage increase led to a 0.43 percent decline in automatable jobs. Such a wage increase led to a full one percent decline in the case of manufacturing, and older, low-skilled workers employed in that industry were particularly likely to be negatively affected by the wage increase.
While the current federal minimum wage in the U.S. has remained unchanged since 2009 — $7.25 an hour — 30 states have higher minimum wage laws. These are, of course, meant to ensure that the “minimum wage” is the same as the “living wage” — the amount of money a person needs to earn to be able to afford such expenses as rent, food, and other necessities.
However, as the NBER study showed, such wage policies should be carefully considered in the face of intelligent automation. Legislators must ask themselves if increasing the minimum wage would help workers keep their jobs or speed up losses due to automation.
Experts predict this trend will speed up over the coming years and decades. According to a recent study by consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, 40 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at a high risk of being taken over by robots by 2030. In the U.K., some 30 percent of jobs are vulnerable, while Germany and Japan could lose 35 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
Universal basic income (UBI) is a hot topic in the world today. So far, however, very few experiments have been conducted to ascertain precisely how best to implement such a system. For that reason, a small-scale UBI experiment in Finland has drawn much attention as one of the few real-world examples we have of how UBI could work.
The trial began earlier this year and is being managed by Kela, the national social-insurance institute. Kela selected 2,000 Finns between the ages of 25 and 58, each of whom was receiving some form of unemployment benefits, to receive €560 (about $645) per month.
In theory, this project would give the world new insights into the logistics and consequences of introducing a UBI system. However, the trial has been riddled with issues and mistakes from the start due to improper planning and a troubled political environment, and now, it is little more than a lesson of how not to run a UBI experiment.
Among the most serious errors was a slashing of the sample size to just one-fifth the number suggested in the original proposition. This extremely small dataset is not enough to be scientifically viable.
Additionally, the trial kicked off during a period of economic turmoil in Finland. The country’s economy had suffered three recessions since 2008, and this state-sponsored UBI project was launched in a time of economic austerity.
Although the results of the project, which will be announced in 2019, may give us some insights into the viability of future UBI programs, even those who designed the Finnish experiment are skeptical of its validity. Olli Kangas, Kela’s coordinator for the program, told The Economist that it was currently in a state of neglect, comparing politicians’ actions to “small boys with toy cars who become bored and move on.”
A Worldwide Question
Universal basic income has been proposed as a solution to two issues that are currently shaking society: poverty and the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into the jobs sector. In an interview with The Guardian, Stephen Hawking warned that the latter will cause “job destruction deep into the middle classes,” and Elon Musk has asserted that “there will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better” as the technology develops.
The idea of a UBI system is to automatically award every citizen with a state-sponsored wage, which could then be augmented by further work. This would provide those displaced by robotic systems with a way to support themselves on the most basic level.
Although Finland’s lackluster experiment remains the largest state-sponsored experiment to date, various governments are considering conducting their own UBI trials.
The system is not without its skeptics, however. Experts question who would provide the money to fund such projects, asserting that a universal basic income of $10,000 a year per person could add approximately $3 trillion to national spending in the U.S.
Individuals such as Mark Cuban and Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, have suggested that we should optimize existing benefits systems. Gordon told the MIT Technology Review that his idea is to make “benefits more generous to reach a reasonable minimum, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, and greatly expand preschool care for children who grow up in poverty.”
We won’t know for sure how effective a UBI could be until someone actually implements an experiment large enough to provide meaningful data, and right now, Finland doesn’t appear to be that entity.
However, that may not be the case in the construction industry. In fact, with a growing shortage in labor, it’s one sector that’s particularly well-suited for an automation takeover.
According to a report released by McKinsey & Company earlier this year, the world of construction suffers from productivity levels that haven’t really gone up much since 1945. The report also showed that 98 percent of huge construction projects end up going over budget and that the industry has proven resistant to technological upgrades. Furthermore, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that almost 200,000 construction jobs were unfilled in the United States alone as of February 2017.
To sum, a lingering inefficiency seems to plague the industry, and it could be remedied through the use of automated systems and machines.
Some critics are wary of this kind of intelligent automation because they view it as an attempt to replace human workers. While it’s true that automated systems might cause some unemployment, they could also lead to the creation of new jobs that we haven’t really needed before, such as providing maintenance for these automated systems.
Still others argue that automation, coupled with universal basic income (UBI), would free people to pursue other meaningful endeavors, such as content creation. This pairing could also give people time to learn more and to tackle larger issues, so before we dismiss automation as a negative, we must consider all possibilities.
Widespread automation has the potential to amplify existing income disparities and produce an unparalleled level of economic inequality. As artificial intelligence (AI) improves and algorithms get more advanced, automated systems can replace more of the workforce, meaning fewer people are needed to generate the same (or greater) amounts of wealth for those at the top. If technology advances far enough, traditional labor may be rendered obsolete.
The advancement of technology has never posed quite such a threat in the past as automation has traditionally created new jobs as it replaced old ones. The Guardian cites the example of bank tellers. ATMs appeared in the 1970s, but there are more human tellers now than back then. Today’s tellers do more than dispense cash, though; they sell financial services and provide advice.
However, the ATM example may not apply as AI improves. If ATMs can dispense cash and advise customers about their mortgage options, too, banks may not need human tellers.
This situation only matters if the ownership of wealth is limited, and at this point in the U.S., it is. Right now, unless you own capital, what you have is your wage. Unfortunately, although productivity has improved since the 1970s, wealth has moved toward ownership and more capital, not wages. Wages and labor are the only source of wealth for most people, and they are also one of the only ways workers can assert themselves in the workplace and advocate for change. If automation renders labor redundant, labor as a source of wealth and power in the workplace will evaporate.
The real issue here isn’t the tech itself — it’s the widening gap between economic classes and the incredible poverty it will cause, not to mention the erasure of the working class. Thankfully, there are several proposed solutions to this potential crisis of equity that don’t require slowing down technological advancement. They include universal basic income (UBI), a tax on robots that replace workers, and job guarantee programs.
UBI has been subjected to heated debate, but many, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, believe it will be feasible in the near future. Former President Obama has also acknowledged that UBI will need to be seriously discussed within the next 10 to 20 years.
Bill Gates and others have argued that robots that replace human workers should pay taxes — or, more accurately, that their owners should. This would place the existing wage burden back on the wealthy and provide money into the “pool,” which could then be used for UBI or education for workers to take on the new jobs that automation creates. These taxes could also fund job guarantee programs.
Job guarantee programs through the government would guarantee a living wage for anyone doing public sector or non-profit work (depending on the program). This is similar in theory to 1933’s Works Progress Administration program. It also shifts the power away from private owners of wealth, who can demand that workers do whatever menial tasks they want at wages they set, and allows people to do anything from teaching to environmental cleanup for a decent wage.
With the National Bureau of Economic Research reporting that the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households held roughly 42 percent of the country’s wealth in 2014, we can’t afford to let automation further widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.
Right now in the United States there is a duel raging on between who or what to scapegoat for the disappearance of certain jobs. One side blames Mexico and China, international trade, and outsiders generally. The other blames artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, the specter of robots stealing jobs. There is evidence that automation is making some jobs obsolete (almost none that points to trade or immigration). However, both positions are overlooking the real issue: the economy is changing in fundamental ways, and there is no way to stop that change.
By 2020, AIs could be powering 85 percent of customer service transactions, rendering them human-free. That could wipe out a career that, in 2015, employed about six percent of the total American workforce (8 million people) with retail sales and cashier jobs. There are 8.7 million people working in trucking in the U.S., and they are staring down the barrel of self-driving vehicles right now. Automation is also likely to replace humans in the food industry by the mid-2020s. Even back in 2013 it was estimated that about 47 percent of the American workforce were at high risk of losing their jobs to automation.
Either we are living in a time which is historically unique for job loss and change, or this is just the next stage in an economic cycle. If the later is the case, then, just as workers moved from agricultural jobs into factories, we are shifting once more. This may sound ominous, but actually, it is good news. It means that there are at least three reasons that automation won’t leave you unemployed.
Trading In D-List Jobs
First, new technologies always usher in new jobs as they eliminate existing positions. Colin Parris, VP of Software Research at GE, explained in an interview with TechCrunch that fighting job losses doesn’t mean resisting automation:
The only way…is to train the talent that we have. Because in the future, we have to embrace robotics. It allows us to reduce cost. If I reduce cost, I have more money that I can use for innovation. The more money I have, the more new products I can create. The more products I create, the more workforce I can hire.
Second, when automation results in job loss, the lost jobs are typically positions that are tough to keep staffed.
“It might take employees out of what we call the ‘three Ds,’ a dull, dirty, or dangerous job,” says Bob Doyle, of the Association for Advancing Automation, to TechCrunch. But “[it] puts them hopefully in a different position that creates more value to the company,” he added. Parris agreed with the “three Ds” position.
There is no question that automation will eliminate some jobs — “D-list” jobs. Automation frees humans from the jobs no one wants do, jobs that are costing us our health and our lives. And while we’re not always adept with cooperation, we’ll need to do better to thrive in our new economy. Instead of petty squabbling over how much unpleasant work we should each have to do, we might instead just agree to pay ourselves for entrepreneurship and volunteer work — fostering more innovation and more new jobs — through universal basic income schemes as necessary.
Third, our economy will almost certainly shift in ways no one can foresee. Economists today warn of the dangers of “job polarization,” the division of human workers into either highly skilled and unskilled classes, with middle-of-the-road jobs lost. However, part of the reason we may not be able to envision a new middle class yet is that we are not yet reeducating ourselves well enough to perceive what the new jobs of the automation era look like.
“We can’t predict what jobs will be created in the future, but it’s always been like that,” says Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, said in an interview with the Economist. “[The video-game designers and cybersecurity specialists] are jobs that nobody in the past would have predicted.”
The important question isn’t who is “stealing” jobs, because they are gone — or soon will be — never to return. Why should we want dangerous, dirty, and dull jobs back; we can innovate and create new jobs as we have in the past. Now, we must either retrain our workforce to master these economic changes or face the growing gap between educated and non-educated workers. Let’s hope we choose the former.
Few subjects are quite as divisive right now as the potential impact of automation on employment. Some, like U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, believe we needn’t be concerned, while others assert that we are already at the start of the biggest workforce upheaval since the Industrial Revolution.
Now, a new paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) puts an actual number to the threat of automation: each industrial robot introduced in the workforce between 1990 and 2007 coincided with the elimination of 6.2 jobs within the commute area. Wages also saw a slight drop of between .25 and .50 percent per 1,000 employees when one or more robots was added to their workforce.
The report’s authors, economists Daron Acemoglu from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University, predict that we could see as much as a .94 to 1.76 percent decline in the employment-to-population ratio by 2025. By 2025, the Census Bureau estimates the United States’ population will reach 347.3 million. That means between 3.3 to 6.1 million jobs could be lost to automation.
In total, roughly 670,000 manufacturing jobs were lost to robots during the period of the study, a number that is expected to only go up given how more and more companies are looking toward automation as a way to improve operations in the coming years.
Add the Census Bureau’s predictions to the ever-growing list of studies that see robots disrupting the workforce, and the threat of automation becomes all-too-real. Even more modest scenarios see the number of industrial robots increasing by about threefold in the next 10 or so years.
That said, researchers and policy makers are already looking for ways to address the seemingly inevitable mass displacement that will be brought about by automation. Several are considering and testing universal basic income (UBI) programs, which would allow the government of a country to ensure that dramatic employee displacement wouldn’t lead to economic instability. Another suggested system involves taxing industrial robots, as suggested by Bill Gates.
The fact is, automation will have an impact on the current employment status quo. The gravity of its effects and what we can do to address them is an important conversation that we most definitely need to be having right now.
It was only a matter of time before the impact of robots and automation would start having an effect on the white-collar workforce. Case in point: BlackRock, Inc, the world’s largest money manager, just announced that it plans to transition toward automated solutions.
The decision to transition comes after news of a massive overhaul that involved a reorganization within BlackRock. The purpose of the reorganization was to place a greater emphasis on computer algorithms that can inform investments. Quite simply, investors are now questioning whether having a human manage their money is worth the fees they require, especially since successful money management is essentially anchored on recognizing and following certain market indicators — the sort of things artificial intelligences (AI) can be programmed to do.
In light of that, BlackRock plans to merge traditional investing methods with technology and data science. This strategy marks the biggest shift in traditional stock picking by a major asset manager to date. It will impact $30 billion worth of assets, and roughly 13 percent of BlackRock’s portfolio managers will be laid off as part of the transition.
Talk of how much automation will disrupt the traditional workforce has mostly centered on blue-collar industries, but this move from BlackRock demonstrates that the very real implications of technology on the job market aren’t limited to professions defined by easily replicated manual labor.
Jobs in stock picking and money management are some of the most lucrative, and yet, given BlackRock’s decision to turn to machines and algorithms to refine their services, even those knowledge-based professions are vulnerable to automation.
“We are starting to see in fields like medicine, law, investment banking, dramatic increases in the ability of computers to think as well or better than humans. And that’s really the game-changer here. Because that’s something that we have never seen before,” public policy expert Sunil Johal told CBC News in reference to robots taking over white-collar professions. Millions of workers worldwide are expected to be displaced by automation, and even the best algorithm can’t predict right now what the impact of that will be.
How will technological innovation shape the future of the workforce? According to Greg Creed, the CEO of Yum Brands, the parent company of popular fast food chains like Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell, automation could replace humans in the food industry by the mid-2020s.
I believe, having listened to people in the artificial intelligence area — and we’re starting to work with them in that area — I think [50 to 100 years] is way too long. I think it’s going to happen — I don’t think it is going to happen next year or the year after, but I do believe that probably by the mid ’20s to the late ’20s, you’ll start to see a dramatic change in sort of how machines sort of run the world.
But that’s not to say that humans will be completely obsolete. “We don’t make a lot of things until customers order,” explained Creed. “I’m not sure we’re going to have robots replace people.” That said, he notes that the rise in automation today marks “the beginning of robotics […] but I don’t see it wholesaling — the wholesale sense changing people’s jobs in the short-term.”
In contrast, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says that automation isn’t an imminent threat to American jobs. He notes that he’s “not worried at all” about machines displacing human workers and that artificial intelligence (AI) taking over jobs won’t happen for another 50 to 100 years.
Right now, several blue-collar industries are already feeling the effects of automation. For instance, the Rio Tinto mining company has already deployed a fleet of 73 self-driving trucks that haul payloads at a cost 15 percent less than those operated by human drivers. In developing nations in Southeast Asia, where 137 million people depend on manufacturing jobs as their main source of income, a study notes that many workers are in danger of being replaced by automated systems in the next 20 years.
While its impact on white-collar jobs isn’t currently quite as pronounced, experts believe that automation will have significant implications within several of those industries as well. A report from Deloitte Insight states that an estimated 114,000 jobs in the legal sector have a high chance of being replaced with automated machines and algorithms within the next two decades.
These predictions are premised on the fact that machines are now more than capable of completing the repetitive jobs that many human workers are handling today. Given the advancements in the field and the focus people are putting on further developing the technology, it’s only a matter of time before we truly begin to feel the real effects of automation across multiple industries.
“I think it’s gonna happen,” Creed said. “We’ll see a dramatic change in how machines run things.”
During his campaign, now-President Donald Trump promised voters he would bring American jobs back from overseas. Now that he is in office, his administration has made job creation a central focus of its efforts.
But what if those jobs overseas can’t come back to the United States because companies no longer need to hire humans to complete the tasks? How is the Trump administration gearing up to tackle the rise of automation?
Based on recent statements by Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, they aren’t planning to address it all. In a conversation with Axios co-founder Mike Allen, Mnuchin said that increased automation is “not even on our radar screen” as the problem is “50 to 100 more years away.” He continued, saying, “I’m not worried at all. In fact, I’m optimistic.”
They’re Not Coming Back
The administration’s claims run counter to the mounting evidence that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are a much more imminent threat to American workers.
According to Mark Muro of the MIT Technology Review, jobs that went overseas aren’t going to be coming back to the U.S. Trump can propose policies to make it more beneficial for companies to bring their operations back to the country, but there’s nothing to stop them from replacing American workers with machines should the financial implications of doing so continue to become more attractive.
As Muro said, “No one should be under the illusion that millions of manufacturing jobs are coming back to America.”
Dismissing vague warnings that robots are coming for our jobs is pretty easy. Not so easy? Dismissing hard evidence that they’ve already arrived and are doing those jobs better and more cheaply than we ever could.
Those are the facts the workers of the world faced when news broke earlier this year that a Chinese factory increased its production by 250 percentand dropped its defect rate by 80 percent by replacing 90 percent of its human workforce with automated machines. In fact, the transition to machines has been so successful, the plant may soon cut its remaining workforce from 60 to just 20 human workers.
That factory is just one example of how automation is putting the future of human labor in jeopardy.
Experts are predicting that up to 47 percent of jobs in the United States may be replaced by automated systems—and that’s all in the next decade. If that’s not enough, manufacturing jobs aren’t the only ones at risk. Automated systems are proving that they are capable of handling everything from “low-skill” work like
Researcher after researcher has concluded the same thing — automation is going to put a lot of people out of work very soon — but what people can’t agree on is what we should do about it.
Some, like President Barack Obama, recommend focusing on education and training to prepare people to take on new types of jobs once their jobs are replaced. Others recommend putting systems in place that would make having a job a guarantee.
Still others think a tax on robots could be the solution. Perhaps the most seriously discussed option, however, is universal basic income (UBI).
So what exactly is it?
The 411 on UBI
The idea behind a UBI system is that every member of a society regularly receives a set amount of unconditional money from the government or a public institution. How much money, how often it is given, who supplies it, and other variables are all open to interpretation.
Proponents of such a system say its benefits would be multifold. With so many people expected to lose their jobs in the coming decades, UBI would be a way for the government of a country to ensure it doesn’t see a drastic increase in poverty due to unemployment. They point to the encouraging results of past studies in their support of UBI, noting how some trials have revealed a link between UBI and better health, while others have noted a drop in the usage of “temptation goods” like alcohol and tobacco in societies with a UBI in place, particularly if those societies are in underdeveloped nations.
Business mogul Mark Cuban simply called UBI “one of the worst possible responses” to automation, philanthropist Bill Gates said even the richest countries couldn’t afford such a system, and the Obama administration released a report stating that job training and job search assistance are much more likely to mitigate the potential unemployment situation than UBI. Others argue that UBI would discourage people from working, wouldn’t be enough to lift them out of poverty, and would result in immigration problems for countries that enact such systems.
Untested, but Not for Long
Until recently, we’ve had very few examples of UBI systems to look to for definitive proof of their potential benefits or burdens. Those examples we did have involved smaller groups of people for relatively short durations of time. What we need to move forward are more extensive trials involving larger groups, and thankfully, that’s what we’re finally getting.
This year, Finland kicked of a two-year UBI trial in which 2,000 randomly selected citizens each receive the equivalent of $587 a month. Each participant was already receiving unemployment benefits or an income subsidy from the government that they would lose if they started earning outside income. The hope is that the UBI will encourage those people to take chances on potentially risky job offers, like those at tech startups, knowing they’ll still have an income to fall back on.
Once the two-year trial is over, the government plans to compare the data it collects from the 2,000 participants and 173,000 non-participants from a similar background to determine if a larger UBI system would be economically worthwhile.
GiveDirectly is poised to launch the largest UBI program to date this spring. With the support of investors like Omidyar, the nonprofit will provide UBI to more than 26,000 Kenyans, with the total amount dispersed expected to hit around $30 million. The company is spreading the money across 200 villages, with recipients grouped into one of three potential systems. Some will receive 12 years of basic income, some will receive two years of it, and others will receive two years’ worth of income as a single lump sum.
Kenyans in 100 villages will act as the control group against which the results of the trial will be judged. GiveDirectly is hoping to learn a great deal about UBI from the study, including how it affects a person’s economic status, willingness to take risks, and their gender relations, particularly in terms of female empowerment.
Canada has its own UBI project set to launch this year. In December, the state legislature of Prince Edward Island (PEI) approved an initiative to test out a UBI program, with leaders of all four political parties in the province approving the measure. The details still need to be hashed out and the plan implemented, but with 150,000 citizens, the small Canadian province could prove to be the perfect setting for a UBI pilot program — large enough to provide a valid sample size but small enough to be logistically feasible.
With so many projects in place, 2017 is being touted as the year we’ll finally find out if a UBI system could work, and really, we have no time to waste. That Chinese factory may have been one of the first, but it certainly won’t be the last example of automation’s superiority in the workplace.
The point is, increased automation is expected to dramatically disrupt worldwide employment as early as 2020. Recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are making this change possible. These developments, of course, aren’t inherently bad, but their effect on jobs will certainly present challenges. The question is, how prepared are we to meet those challenges?
In a recent post in the Bank of England’s (BOE) staff blog, BOE regional agents Mauricio Armellini and Tim Pike explored the uncertainty surrounding automation, sharing their thoughts on the effects AI and increased automation will have on labor markets:
There is growing debate in the economics community and academia about whether technological progress threatens to displace a large proportion of these jobs in the longer term … Economists looking at previous industrial revolutions observe that none of these risks have transpired. However, this possibly underestimates the very different nature of the technological advances currently in progress, in terms of their much broader industrial and occupational applications and their speed of diffusion.
Technology is moving fast, but society might not be adjusting fast enough, the pair argues:
The potential for simultaneous and rapid disruption, coupled with the breadth of human functions that AI might replicate, may have profound implications for labor markets … [E]conomists should seriously consider the possibility that millions of people may be at risk of unemployment, should these technologies be widely adopted.
Getting Ready for Robots
The BOE’s experts aren’t alone in their assessment of the situation. Several notable personalities from both the financial and tech industries have expressed their concerns regarding job displacement. However, even though they agree it’ll be a major problem, they can’t agree on what should be done about it. Elon Musk has famously endorsed universal basic income (UBI) as a potential solution. Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban thinks that UBI is “one of the worst possible responses” to the unemployment problem. Bill Gates isn’t too keen on UBI now, but he does think it could be a viable solution in the future.
Perhaps the best thing we can do right now is simply prepare. As automation is expected to takeover so-called lesser-skilled jobs first, there’s an opportunity for the development of better jobs. For example, we’ll need people to monitor and maintain automated systems as they are implemented. Those people will need to be trained for these so-called jobs of the future that automation will necessitate.
It’s worth investing in these solutions now. As Armellini and Pike concluded, “It would be a mistake … to dismiss the risks associated with these new technologies too lightly.”
In theory, a universal basic income (UBI) would be great. Under such a system, all citizens of a country are entitled to an unconditional amount of money on top of income they already generate through other means. It could spur productivity, improve health, alleviate poverty, reduce crime, raise education, and improve quality of life. It’s also especially relevant, given the reality of automation taking over more and more jobs.
UBI’s potential has prompted several nations to study and test its viability. Among the pioneers are Finland, which just started implementing a UBI program that gives 2,000 randomly selected citizens $587 tax-free per month; India, which proposed the system as a solution to job loss caused by increased automation; and Canada, which saw leaders of four political parties unanimously support the decision to establish a program that will guarantee income.
It’s all going well so far, but until the trials are able to deliver definitive results showing UBI’s effectiveness, we are left to ponder the many questions surrounding it. For instance, how much income should be distributed? Should it be limited to the minimum needed, similar to welfare state programs? Would a higher amount be more effective? Would UBI prompt people to lose their motivation to work? Is it enough of a response to address job displacement caused by automation? Can countries around the world afford it?
Bill Gates Weighs In
The urgency that most UBI advocates feel, given the current state of the economy and realities of job displacement, isn’t shared by Bill Gates. While the co-chair of the Gates Foundation isn’t exactly opposed to the concept, he doesn’t think the program is ready for public implementation just yet.
“Over time, countries will be rich enough to do this. However, we still have a lot of work that should be done — helping older people, helping kids with special needs, having more adults helping in education,” said Gates during a recent AMA on Reddit.
While others worry about impending employee displacement in the age of automation, Gates believes that technology will open more opportunities for countries, allowing them to raise money that could be used to finance sectors that need people in the jobs he mentioned. Governments can use this added income as an opportunity to train the unemployed to fill new roles in the job market.
Gates also added during his AMA that countries aren’t financially equipped to finance a stable UBI program. “Even the U.S. isn’t rich enough to allow people not to work. Someday we will be, but until then, things like the Earned Income Tax Credit will help increase the demand for labor.”
The Microsoft co-founder could be right and now may not be the right time for a UBI, but thanks to the countries giving it a shot, we should know for sure rather soon.
Dallas Mavericks owner and business mogul Mark Cuban has joined other technology leaders in warning about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots on jobs. In an interview with CNBC, Cuban warned about the loss of jobs due to increased automation in the very near future. The interview was followed by a tweet and a link to an article.
The Mavericks boss, however, also asked a very important question: “How does [Trump] deal with displaced workers?” Thus far, the new administration hasn’t provided any clear plans on how to handle the issue, but maybe Cuban’s inquiry will prompt a response.
Automation is changing not just the state of jobs but possibly even the meaning of work. The previous administration had suggestions on how to deal with this, and several experts have also weighed in, with many asserting that automation itself isn’t a bad thing. One particular solution being pushed around is universal basic income (UBI). Several institutions have already begun UBI experiments to test how feasible and effective such a program would be.
As automation comes for many of the world’s jobs, Cuban’s question remains: What are we doing about it?
It almost shouldn’t come as a surprise. In an age defined by advancements in the tech industry, it was only a matter of time before the traditional paradigms set by the industrial revolution had to change.
The sophistication of today’s technology means factories are turning to computers instead of human employees to get the job done. According to a joint study conducted by Oxford University and the Oxford Martin School, “[…] 47 percent of jobs in the US are ‘at risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years.” A Ball State University study concluded that almost nine out of 10 jobs have been lost to automation since 2000, and a factory in China just saw a 250 percent increase in production after replacing 90 percent of its workforce with automated systems.
However, as demand for physical labor goes down, other opportunities are arising, and according to Clive Thompson of Wired, the next big blue-collar job will be coding.
Opportunities in IT and Beyond
The information technology industry is expected to grow faster than almost any other, with some predicting a 12 percent growth between 2014 to 2024. The problem lies in the fact that coding will require a different technical skill set than much of today’s blue collar work. But thankfully, many employers are responding to the needs of the evolving job market by attempting to make code learning more accessible.
Silicon Valley giants like Google have initiatives designed to engage and teach anyone interested in programming. Schools are working to introduce coding as early as high school, while various other institutions are offering intensive code-learning programs. This level of education and exposure to coding won’t necessarily give these future coders the knowledge to create complex AIalgorithms, but it would be enough to qualify them for a well-paying, reliable job in the IT department.
It should also be noted that coding opportunities reach far beyond the tech industry. Silicon Valley employs only eight percent of the coders in the U.S., and according to one study, half of all programming openings are in industries outside of technology, such as finance, manufacturing, and healthcare. There’s also the draw of compensation. The national average salary for IT jobs is double the national average for all jobs: $81,000 annually.
It’s now a matter of demystifying coding as a profession that only gifted computer prodigies are capable of learning. As Thompson points out in his article, several of the skills needed to be successful at blue collar occupations like coal mining — intense focus, an ability to function within a team, a level of comfort working with engineering tech, etc. — could easily translate into coding. Once people realize that it is a highly specialized skill but one that they can learn to do well, coding has the potential to open more doors to employment in the age of automation.
It’s hard to argue against automation when statistics are clearly illustrating its potential. The latest evidence comes out of a Chinese factory in Dongguan City. The factory recently replaced 90 percent of its human workforce with machines, and it led to a staggering 250 percent increase in productivity and a significant 80 percent drop in defects.
Changying Precision Technology Company’s factory used to need 650 human workers to produce mobile phones. Now, the factory is run by 60 robot arms that work around the clock across 10 production lines. Only 60 people are still employed by the company — three are assigned to check and monitor the production line, and the others are tasked with monitoring computer control systems. Any remaining work not handled by humans is left in the capable hands of machines.
According to Luo Weiqiang, general manager of the factory, the number of people employed could drop to just 20, and given the level of efficiency achieved by automation, it won’t be long before other factories follow in their footsteps.
This efficiency comes at a price, though: our jobs. In fact, according to a joint study conducted by Oxford University and the Oxford Martin School, “[…] 47 percent of jobs in the US are ‘at risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years.”
And these won’t just be factory jobs, either. At the rate that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are advancing, machines will soon be able to take over tasks in a variety of industries and do them just as well as, if not better than, humans. This early into our inevitably automated future, we already have robot lawyers capable of defending parking ticket violations, an AI that can deliver a medical diagnosis as well as a human doctor, robot “journalists,” and even AI therapists that can outperform their human counterparts in terms of drawing out necessary personal information from patients.
The uncertainty surrounding the future of human employment in the age of automation is already apparent, and machines are poised to keep getting better and better at what they do. Fortunately, governments and private organizations are putting some serious thought into this subject and have come up with some potential solutions to address widespread employee displacement.
Among those is universal basic income (UBI), a system in which all citizens of a country receive an unconditional amount of money on top of income they generate through other means. Pilot studies in countries like India, Canada, and Finland have already begun, and thus far, they’ve delivered promising results. It’s too early to say if UBI could address widespread job loss due to automation head on, but it could ultimately prove to be an empowering economic move as we make the transition.
According to a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute, nearly half of all the work we do will be able to be automated by the year 2055. However, a variety of factors, including politics and public sentiment toward the technology, could push that back by as many as 20 years. An author of the report, Michael Chui, stressed that this doesn’t mean we will be inundated with mass unemployment over the next decades. “What we ought to be doing is trying to solve the problem of ‘mass redeployment,’” Chui tells Public Radio International (PRI). “How can we continue to have people working alongside the machines as we go forward?”
The report suggests that the move toward automation will also bring with it a global boost in productivity: “Based on our scenario modeling, we estimate automation could raise productivity growth globally by 0.8 to 1.4 percent annually.” Removing the capacity for human error and dips in speed due to illness, fatigue, or general malaise can help boost productivity in any task capable of being automated.
Many of the discussions on automation surround how it will impact manual labor. However, while it’s easy to see how robotics can take over precise and repetitive manufacturing tasks, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is allowing for more cognition-based tasks to be taken over by computers as well. Chui stated, “In about 60 percent of occupations, over 30 percent of the things that people do could be automated — either using robots or artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, all of these technologies that we’re hearing more and more about.”
What About Workers?
Chui believes that mass redeployment is how the workforce will endure the job loss. The report cites the shift from agriculture to industry as another point in history during which mass redeployment occurred. For example, over the course of the 20th century and into today, the United States has moved from having 40 percent of the workforce in agriculture to only less than two percent. “We don’t have 30 percent unemployment because, in fact, we found new things for people to do in the economy,” Chui says. “So we have … historically been able to do that.”
However, the switch from automation isn’t as clear-cut as one from agriculture to industry. The industrial revolution created new roles for masses of people along with machines having a bigger part to play in farming. Automation may create some new roles for some highly skilled workers, but others, especially low-skill workers, will be left without any inherent positions. This is why some experts are heralding universal basic income (UBI) as the only way to ensure the livelihoods of displaced workers.
During his administration, President Obama saw that automation and UBI would begin to enter into our political debates. We are in the infancy of these ideas, but serious conversations need to start if we want to be ready to preemptively tackle these issues before we’re forced to by circumstance.
As many studies have predicted, we are globally moving toward more automated workplaces. Indeed, most experts already believe that the rise of automation is inevitable. One popular and often cited study published in 2013 by Oxford University and the Oxford Martin School predicts, for instance, that 47 percent of jobs in the United States will be automated in the next 20 years. Forrester, meanwhile, thinks that about 7 percent of jobs in the U.S. will be automated by 2025.
And the U.S. isn’t the only country focused on this trend. A study by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship predicts that 40 percent of Canadian jobs will be replaced by machines in just 10 to 20 years. In the U.K., meanwhile, an expected 850,000 jobs will be automated by 2030. Then there’s a report conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that talks about how 137 million workers in Southeast Asia could lose their jobs in (again) the next 20 years.
All these studies seem to have the same general timeframe for when automation will significantly disrupt the job market. Two new studies, however, think it won’t be that fast.
A study by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that the transition to a machine-dominated workplace will happen at a slower, more gradual pace than what others think. In a survey of more than 2,000 activities across 800 jobs, the study determined which tasks could be automated and which jobs were ripe for automation. Their conclusion? Only 5 percent of jobs can be entirely automated with “currently demonstrated technology.” This position is echoed in a report published in 2016 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED), which concluded that only an average of 9 percent of jobs could be automated across its 21-member countries.
“This is going to take decades,” said James Manyika, author of the first report and director at McKinsey. “How automation affects employment will not be decided simply by what is technically feasible, which is what technologists tend to focus on.” The other factors at play include the economy, government regulations, and society’s attitude toward this new tech. In their estimation, 2055 is the soonest that half of the world’s work activities could be automated.
An Inevitable Future
One thing all these reports agree on is the fact that workplace automation will happen, and in some cases, it has already begun. There’s Walmart, Amazon Go, a Japanese life insurance firm, and Barclays, not to mention the boom of self-driving vehicles. The industries that will be experiencing this job displacement gets more and more varied, everything from factories to office desks. Stifling this development, clearly, won’t be the right move forward.
Ultimately, automation is a good thing, with the potential to benefit the global economy in the long run, so perhaps rather than focusing on when it’ll happen, the conversation should center on what can be done to help those whose jobs will be affected by widespread automation.
In the case of the world’s governments, more involvement via policy-making is key. One policy in particular that’s gaining attention alongside the automation issue is universal basic income (UBI), with some countries already testing out UBI systems to see if they could help with future unemployment. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has proposed an increase in education to counter automation.
Whether automation reaches a tipping point in 2025, 2030, or 2055, we still have time to prepare and adjust, so continued research like that out of McKinsey and OCED will help illuminate the best path forward.
Foxconn Electronics, the Taiwanese manufacturing company behind some of the biggest electronic brands’ devices, including Apple’s iPhone, has announced that it will ramp up automation processes at its Chinese factories. The goal is to eventually achieve full automation.
In an article published in Digitimes, General Manager Dai Jia-peng of Foxconn’s Automation Technology Development Committee explains that the process will unfold in three phases.
“In the first phase, Foxconn aims to set up individual automated work stations for work that workers are unwilling to do or is dangerous,” Dai said. This will be followed by the second phase, which focuses on streamlining production efficiency and removing unnecessary robots from the production line. “In the third phase, entire factories will be automated with only a minimal number of workers assigned for production, logistics, testing, and inspection processes,” concluded Dai.
Back in 2015, Foxconn began its efforts toward automation, stating that they wanted to achieve 30 percent automation by 2020. Right now, the manufacturing giant has already deployed over 40,000 of its Foxbots, the industrial robots it has developed in-house. Foxconn has the capability to produce 10,000 Foxbots annually, which could be used to replace human labor.
According to Dai, the company’s factories in Chengdu, western China; Shenzhen, southern China; and Zhengzhou, northern China, are already in the second or third phase of this longterm automation plan, and at least 10 fully automated production lines are already in place at some of those factories.
The Reality of an Automated Future
As businesses strive toward increased efficiency, automation has emerged as a valuable tool in helping them achieve their goals. While perhaps beneficial to the companies, this will ultimately lead to job loss for many employees. Foxconn, for instance, employed around 1.2 million people as of last year — if they reach their goal of full automation, that’s over a million people who will lose their jobs to Foxbots.
While robots may be a more cost-effective option in the longterm, a company must be ready to shell out a sizable initial investment to begin the transition to automation, and while robotic technology continues to improve, bots aren’t likely to put everyone out of work. As Dai noted, “Industrial robots will not be able to completely replace workers because humans have the flexibility to quickly switch from one task to another.” Reprograming a robot to perform multiple tasks or even a single new one is just too time-consuming and expensive.
Nevertheless, the automation of jobs, beginning with the manufacturing industry, will have major implications for global employment, especially given the pace at which the technology is advancing. With up to 47 percent of jobs in the United States alone at risk of replacement by automation, extensive job loss is a reality that the world must prepare for.
Thankfully, many experts are already proposing ways to mitigate the changes, such as universal basic income (UBI) or increased job training, so by the time the robots do take over these jobs, hopefully a solid plan will be in place to support those displaced workers.
The world is already on the cusp of a new industrial revolution—one that will be brought about by automation based on artificial intelligence (AI).
According to a joint study conducted by Oxford University and the Oxford Martin School, “[…] 47 percent of jobs in the US are “at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years.”
In a recent interview, President Barack Obama also talked about how AI will fundamentally change the future of employment; with downsides in terms of eliminating jobs and suppressing wages.
The world sees automation as the key to achieving more efficiency, across different aspects of our lives. But that efficiency comes at a price—the displacement of countless employees who will soon be replaced by artificially intelligent (AI) technology.
What happens then?
The answer could be universal basic income (UBI)—a policy where all citizens of a country will receive an unconditional amount of money, on top of income they generate through other means. The funds could be provided by the government, or a public institution.
And in 2017, Finland and the Netherlands will begin testing the system.
By January of next year, the program is tentatively set to launch in Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands. The system will provide varying benefits to current welfare recipients, following five different models to determine what works best.
In Finland, a randomly selected group of two thousand citizens, who are already receiving unemployment benefits, will receive €560 (around $600) as a monthly basic income. The program will run for two years and study whether this system can help raise the employment rate, lower poverty, as well as reduce bureaucracy and social exclusion.
The Potential of UBI
Considering that UBI is intended to provide an incentive that will spur productivity, and improve quality of life, a key point of consideration is the level of income that should be distributed. Should it be a minimum benefit similar to welfare state schemes? Or a higher amount that would be more appealing? To that end, with everyone receiving enough money to cover basic food, shelter, as well as goods and services, would people lose their motivation to work? Is UBI enough of a response to the pace of technological innovation and automation?
Of course, there’s that all-important question of who’s footing the bill. Since government revenue is derived from its taxing authority, the whole scheme is a little like robbing Peter to pay Paul; after all, if the population is unemployed, where will the government muster the funds to support a universal basic income? The whole system would inevitably collapse.
Still, the implementation of UBI at this scale is still in its early days, but the results from pilot programs thus far have been promising.
In India, where roughly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, pilot studies of basic income grants conducted in 2011 led to more labor and work, not less, which skeptics typically predict. Results showed a shift from traditional wage labor, to self-employed farming and business initiatives. Additionally, the steady flow of income eased economic anxieties, allowing families to focus on their health and invest in the future.
The report doesn’t take a hostile stance against AI and automation; in fact, it encourages the technologies. The first strategy it proposes is to invest in AI research and development, echoing Obama and the earlier White House report:
If care is taken to responsibly maximize its development, AI will make important, positive contributions to aggregate productivity growth, and advances in AI technology hold incredible potential to help the United States stay on the cutting edge of innovation. Government has an important role to play in advancing the AI field by investing in research and development.
As Obama said in an interview with WIRED, “[T]he government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure there’s a conversation between basic research and applied research.” This also brings to mind the recent Senate subcommittee hearing in which industry experts urged the government to step up in making good use of AI.
The second strategy is in the same league as the first: Education is key.
As AI changes the nature of work and the skills demanded by the labor market, American workers will need to be prepared with the education and training that can help them continue to succeed. If the United States fails to improve at educating children and retraining adults with the skills needed in an increasingly AI-driven economy, the country risks leaving millions of Americans behind and losing its position as the global economic leader.
What About UBI?
Those following the discussions surrounding this issue are familiar with one particular solution that’s popped up quite often: universal basic income (UBI), giving every citizen a set amount of money with no strings attached to it. It is a favorite answer to the unemployment problem given by conservative thinkers like Milton Friedman and tech industry executives like Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Tesla’s Elon Musk.
The new White House report offers a more cautious take on UBI: “Our goal should be first and foremost to foster the skills, training, job search assistance, and other labor market institutions to make sure people can get into jobs, which would much more directly address the employment issues raised by AI than would UBI.”
This sums up the paper’s third strategy, which advocates for more moderate social safety nets and government support as opposed to a UBI system.
This all seems well and good, and it’s overall a pretty progressive approach that accepts the inevitability of AI and automation and works with it. But the most important question might be this: “Will the incoming Trump administration agree with these suggestions?”
“When you look at Trump’s stance on jobs in general, he thinks that immigration and free trade are the things that have robbed us of jobs, not automation,” Rob May, founder of Talla, a human resources automation company, tells WIRED. “It will be interesting to see if, as time goes on, the administration sees automation as something that is inevitable or if they try to put policies in place that try to fight it.”
France’s national postal service, Le Groupe La Poste, has begun a testing program to bring delivery by autonomous drone to the country. This announcement comes on the heels of Amazon successfully completing its first drone delivery over in the U.K.
A subsidiary of the postal service, DPDgroup, has been working on making drone delivery a reality in the European nation since 2014. The group partnered with French drone-making company Atechsys to provide the drones, which can fly up to 19 km (12 miles) at speeds of up to nearly 31 km/h (19 mph) while carrying a parcel weighing up to 3 kg (6.6 lbs).
The drone test route covers about 15 km (9.3 miles), which is the distance between two depots in the southeast of the country, Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Beaume and Pourrières in the Provence region of France. The packages are dropped off and picked up from these designated depots.
A Looming Problem
Any advancement in autonomous robotic technology always brings about a renewed debate surrounding jobs and unemployment. Experts say that robots will continue to replace humans, with some estimating that anywhere from 47 to 81 percent of jobs could be eliminated by technology.
Low-skill jobs such as manufacturing are no longer the only kind being discussed as potentially on the chopping block. IBM’s Watson AI was just as effective at recommending cancer treatments as doctors, and not even editors are safe, as Watson was also able to edit an entire magazine on its own. It’s also said that AI can replace 80 percent of IT workers.
Universal basic income is being discussed as a way to ease the blow that automation will take on the workforce, but even if that’s not the ultimate solution, something will need to be done soon to account for the loss of jobs due to technology.
The latest in a long line of groups trying to uncover a definitive answer to this question is the Economic Security Project (ESP), an eclectic group of people with signatories that include activists, investors, and visionaries. This group has pledged to spend $10 million in the next two years in order to find out if UBI can work in the United States.
This wide-ranging project would involve the ESP funding a diverse group of organizations, each with a distinctive question they would like answered regarding the benefits, or lack thereof, of UBI. The Roosevelt Institute, for example, will contribute macroeconomic modeling, behavioral studies, and public opinion research on UBI. Another group, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, aims to find out the feasibility of carbon pricing and dividends to fund UBI.
We Need Answers
Poverty is not currently as big of a problem in the U.S. as it is in places like Kenya and Uganda, but a major concern for the U.S. is the encroachment of automation on American workforce. How will those unfortunate enough to have the same skill-set as the robots that could replace them survive once they no longer have jobs?
It’s a concern that worries government officials, financial experts, and scientists, and the UN has even predicted that 75 percent of jobs in developed nations could be lost to automation. As a solution to this potential job loss in the coming years, some have been pushing for UBI, but first the ramifications of such a system must still be studied. If this $10 million investment generates solid evidence one way or the other with regards to UBI, it could give officials a better action plan for humanity as it enters the age of automation.