Long the prediction of futurists and philosophers, the lived reality of technology replacing human work has been a constant feature since the cotton gin, the assembly line and, more recently, the computer.
We’re deep into what-ifs with those representations, but the conversation about robots and work is increasingly paired with the debate over how to address growing income inequality — a key issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
The workplace is changing. How should Americans deal with it?
“There’s no simple answer,” said Stuart Russell, a computer scientist at UC Berkeley, an adjunct professor of neurological surgery at UC San Francisco and the author of a forthcoming book, “Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control.” “But in the long run nearly all current jobs will go away, so we need fairly radical policy changes to prepare for a very different future economy. “
In his book, Russell writes, “One rapidly emerging picture is that of an economy where far fewer people work because work is unnecessary.”
That’s either a very frightening or a tantalizing prospect, depending very much on whether and how much you (and/or society) think people ought to have to work and how society is going to put a price on human labor.
There will be less work in manufacturing, less work in call centers, less work driving trucks, and more work in health care and home care and construction.
More robots means more inequality
Almost everyone who has thought seriously about this has said that more automation is likely to lead to more inequality.
It is indisputable that businesses have gotten more and more productive but workers’ wages have not kept pace.
“Our analysis shows that most job growth in the United States and other advanced economies will be in occupations currently at the high end of the wage distribution,” according to McKinsey. “Some occupations that are currently low wage, such as nursing assistants and teaching assistants, will also increase, while a wide range of middle-income occupations will have the largest employment declines.”
One Democratic presidential candidate — Andrew Yang, the insurgent nonpolitician — has built his campaign around solving this problem. Yang blames the automation of jobs more than outsourcing to China for the decline of American manufacturing and draws a direct line between that shrinking manufacturing sector and the rise of Donald Trump.
If automation takes the jobs, should all people get a government paycheck?
Yang’s answer to the problem is to give everyone in the US, regardless of need, an income — he calls it a “freedom dividend” — of $1,000 per month. It would address inequality, both economic and racial, he argues, and let people pursue work that adds value to the community.
“Ninety-four percent of the new jobs created in the US are gig, temporary or contractor jobs at this point, and we still just pretend it’s the ’70s, where it’s like, ‘You’re going to work for a company, you’re going to get benefits, you’re going to be able to retire, even though we’ve totally eviscerated any retirement benefits, but somehow you’re going to retire, it’s going to work out,’ ” Yang said in that Atlantic interview. “Young people look up at this and be like, ‘This does not seem to work.’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, it’s all right.’ It’s not all right. We do have to grow up.”
He specifically points to truck driving as a profession that is key to the US economy today but could and may be fully automated in the very near future. Automating trucking will help the environment, save money and help productivity, he says. But it won’t help truck drivers.
On the other hand, truck driving, while honorable work, might not be many people’s life’s ambition. In this way, robots would be taking jobs that humans might not want unless they had to do them, which they currently do.
“When you accept these circumstances, that we’re going to be competing against technologies that have a marginal cost of near zero, then quickly you have to say OK, then, how are we going to start valuing our time? What does a 21st century economy look like in a way that serves our interests and not the capital efficiency machine?” he says. And that’s how he, and a lot of liberal economists and capitalists like Elon Musk, arrive at the idea of a basic income.
“I don’t think we have the time to remake the workforce in that way,” he said. “We should start distributing value directly to Americans.”
Creating a population that can subsist on a basic income, without work, would end up reshaping how society works altogether.
“For some, UBI represents a version of paradise. For others, it represents an admission of failure — an assertion that most people will have nothing of economic value to contribute to society,” writes Russell. “They can be fed and housed — mostly by machines — but otherwise left to their own devices.”
Yang is focused more on the immediate threat he says automation poses to American jobs. And politicians aren’t talking about it honestly because they are too focused on being optimistic.
“You’re a politician, your incentives are to say we can do this, we can do that, we can do the other thing and then meanwhile society falls apart.”
What to do with our time?
Not everyone thinks society would fall apart, and there’s actually been a lot of serious concern about what people will do when productivity increases to a point where they don’t have to work as much.
“To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed-for sweet — until they get it,” he wrote, later adding that “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
And while it makes life easier on individual workers, managing the transition from one type of economy to the next (farmer to manufacturer, to information specialist and now beyond) has been a key long-term reality for the American worker.
Is the pace of change different this time?
No one has thought more about this than labor unions. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler agrees with Yang that automation is one of the biggest challenges we’re facing as a country and it’s not getting the attention it deserves. But she’s not yet worried about dystopia.
“The scare tactics are a little extreme,” she said in an interview, arguing that reports of tens of millions of American jobs lost by 2030 are probably overstated.
“Every time a technological shift has taken place in this country there have been those doomsday scenarios,” she said in an interview.
“What ended up happening is what they call bargained acquiescence,” said Shuler, “where the unions went to the table and said ‘OK, we get it, this technology is coming, but how are we going to manage the change? How are we going to have a worker voice at the table? How are we going to make sure that working people benefit from this and the company is able to be more efficient and successful?’ “
Yang counters that argument by noting that automation has sped up, making it harder for workers, employers and the government to adjust. “Unlike with previous waves of automation, this time new jobs will not appear quickly enough in large enough numbers to make up for it,” he said on his website.
Somewhere in the middle is where we’ll end up
Shuler said American workers need to have the conversation about the future of work more urgently today.
“We all have a choice to make,” she said. “Do we want technology to benefit working people, and our country, as a result, does better? Or do we want to follow a path of this dark, dystopian view that work is going to go away and people are going to have nothing to do and we’re just going to be essentially working at the whims of a bunch of robots?”
Somewhere in the middle, she argued, is where we’ll end up.
“We’re going to work alongside technology as it evolves. New work is going to emerge. We want to make sure working people can transition fairly and justly and responsibly and we can only do that if working people have a seat at the table.”
The long-term future
Shuler has an interest in workers and their rights today, but Russell writes that long-term, as automation of work becomes more tangible, the country will have to change its entire outlook on work and what we teach children and people to strive for.
“We need a radical rethinking of our educational system and our scientific enterprise to focus more attention on the human rather than the physical world,” he writes. “It sounds odd to say that happiness should be an engineering discipline, but that seems to be the inevitable conclusion. “
In other words: We will have to figure out how to be happy with the robots and the automation, because they are coming.