In the June 25- July 1, 2016 issue of New Scientist, Michael Bond and Joshua Howgego report that a recent study by Oxford University concludes that within two decades, one-half of all jobs in the US could be done by machines. Artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced automation are having a profound effect on work and employment, especially in the advanced industrial economies. (See “When Machine’s Take Over: What Will Humans Do When Computers Run the World?” New Scientist, June 25- July 1, 2016, Vol. 230, Issue 3079, p29 &ff.)
Martin Ford’s 2015 book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, explores in greater depth the impact that AI and robotics on employment. Ford traces the powerful (and disturbing) effects of robotization and artificial intelligence on a range of sectors in the economy, and argues that in addition to job elimination, the current AI-driven revolution in the world of work promises to displace both blue collar, manual laborers and white collar, college-educated professionals—the latter including but not limited to, lawyers,computer programmers, managers, office and retail workers. The current and anticipated “rise of the robots” thus threatens to create an increasingly jobless future for all; a future, Ford argues, that cannot be addressed with more education and upskilling of the workforce, because those jobs for which displaced blue collar workers once retrained increasingly will be carried out by robots and smart machines.
Ford’s book, as does Bond and Howgego’s article, underscore both the ominous changes in the economy and the profound losses that such changes portend. Bond and Howgego’s article explores the significant role work has played, especially in the advanced economies—not only as source of income and livelihood, but also as an important source of employees’ sense of purpose, identity, and meaning. For instance, they cite a recent Gallop poll that shows that 50% of manual workers, and 70% of college educated employees report that they get a sense of identify from their jobs. They also discuss the health benefits associated with the performance of meaningful work, and how the risks of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s may be reduced for those who work more years, and postpone retirement.
As work continues to change because of employers’ preference for AI and automation, and fewer people are able to find employment, how will society deal with what looks like an imminent if not current, tidal wave of unemployment and forced ‘leisure’? Ford shows how recent history has been characterized by diminishing job creation, lengthening jobless recoveries, and soaring long-term unemployment—all of which are certain to lead to significant social and economic results—if not adequately addressed.
Ford, Bond, and Howgego all suggest that society will necessarily need to rethink the distribution of wealth and society’s assets. Ford, for example, argues for a guaranteed basic income of 10,000 dollars annually for all citizens (augmentable of course, by paid employment), and says that if the guaranteed income was not set too high, it would be likely to avoid the pitfalls of creating disincentives to work. He estimates such a plan would cost about 2 trillion dollars annually—about one half of which would be recouped through cost savings on discontinued welfare programs (e.g., food stamps, housing assistance programs, Earned Income Tax Credits, etc.) and the other half which might be raised by new taxes, like a carbon tax. Bond, and Howgego also explore basic incomes, but also discuss alternative income-supporting plans, such as a negative tax program, in which poor people receive a guaranteed annual income, middle earners aren’t taxed, and the wealthy are taxed.
Whether society is culturally and politically ready for the introduction of a guaranteed minimum income remains to be seen. Ominously, current and forthcoming changes in work and the resulting displacement of workers is likely to necessitate a sweeping examination of the economic and moral implications of the disappearance of paid employment. AI and robotic technology, as these writers convincingly show, will continue to eliminate jobs and make human employment increasingly rare.
“When Machine’s Take Over: What Will Humans Do When Computers Run the World,” Michael Bond and Joshua,” New Scientist, Vol 230, Issue 3079, p29 &ff.)
Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford, Basic Books, 2015
Inventing the Future: Post-Capitalism and a World Without Work, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Verso, 2016